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Community Colleges

'Mission creep' or Mission Possible?

The debate over whether community colleges should grant bachelor's degrees simmers on.
University Business, Mar 2006

In 1992, a two-year institution then known as Utah Valley Community College set out to launch degree programs at the baccalaureate level. The college already offered many paths to associate's degrees, but Utah County had exactly zero public four-year institutions to which students could transfer.

More than a decade later, the school now called Utah Valley State College runs 34 bachelor's degree programs and its enrollment has bloomed by almost 15,000 students to 24,000 total (nearly 70 percent of whom hail from Utah County). Most striking: Utah Valley no longer considers itself a community college, says Megan Laurie, assistant director of communications.

The tale of Utah Valley--if a bit extreme--points to a real trend in higher education: More community colleges are becoming bachelor's degree-granting institutions. To some higher ed faculty and administrators, the idea makes sense. To others it belies a wasp's nest of problems. The fact remains, it continues to grow.

At least 19 community colleges in nine states now grant bachelor's degrees, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association, a group that supports the movement. In Arizona, lawmakers may stamp their approval on the concept this spring. Illinois has also tackled the topic as of late.

As the community college baccalaureate grows,
it forces tough conversations.

"Personally, I think it's probably okay to offer a limited number of these degrees if there is a demonstrated need and it can't be done any other way," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, which has not taken an official policy stance on the issue. Barbara Townsend, a professor of higher and continuing education at the University of Missouri-Columbia, sees an identity issue at stake. "It calls into question, what is a community college?" she notes. "I really think that's at the heart of this."

Before getting into the merits or pitfalls of the community college baccalaureate, or CCB, consider these points:

To offer a bachelor's degree program, a community college must typically receive state approval and go through a lengthy process for accreditation.

The CCB differs from articulation or other partnerships between two-year and four-year IHEs. In this case, the community college grants the degree.

CCBs typically focus on practitioner-oriented fields that meet local needs, such as public health or safety.

Less than two percent of the nation's 1,157 community colleges grant baccalaureates.

Edison College, the latest newcomer to bachelordom, exemplifies CCB trends. The four-campus community college system serves the southwest portion of Florida, where hurricanes and homeland security sit high on the agendas of law enforcement officials. According to Edison President Kenneth Walker, a county official approached administrators at the school a few years ago expressing a need for certain police officers to obtain higher degrees. The college launched a multiyear push--and just received state approval to launch its bachelor of applied science in public safety management this summer. "Intellectual capital is now really the driving force for progress and prosperity in our nation," says Walker.

Demand from the working world is clearly driving CCB growth. At Miami Dade College, new routes to baccalaureate degrees in education are helping to fill Florida's teacher vacancies. During the 2004-2005 school year, 232 students participated in Miami Dade's bachelor's degree programs, according to school officials; another 241 students enrolled in courses for certification purposes. "We were deliberate in structuring our programs so that we offer classes at different times of day and on all of our campuses except the medical campus," says Nora Hernandez Hendrix, president of the InterAmerican Campus, which encompasses the baccalaureate programs.

That kind of flexibility highlights another powerful driver behind CCB expansion: student access. "In many communities you don't have access to four-year programs," says Belle Wheelan, president of the Commission on Colleges, an accrediting body for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. "It's an access problem, to me," says Wheelan.

So must the community college transform so extremely to meet the needs of the modern economy? That question stirs many a debate. "A lot of opponents of this complain that it's destroying the mission," says Walker. "What is the mission? Our mission was never to be a two-year college. It was to be responsive to the needs of our communities."

He takes a spin through the history of community colleges to explain that premise. "We started out as junior colleges, then after WWII with some federal funds, we changed our mission and added on vocational and technical programs. As time went on, we realized there were a lot of people coming out of high schools who weren't ready to do college-level work. We added on remedial programs in order to prepare those students. Then we added noncredit programs under our continuing education programs. So we've been muddying the water of our mission for a while."

Hernandez Hendrix agrees. "We are more clear about our mission than ever before: It's to meet the community's workforce, education, and training needs. If you are not responding to that, then you are abandoning part of that mission."

Yet just as many people seem to worry about the community college baccalaureate as support it. When a Utah legislator recently proposed that Snow College, a two-year community college, offer higher degrees, Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Rich Kendell sounded the frequently heard "mission creep" note: Allow a community college to grant bachelor's degrees and it will become a different institution. "The regents have given Snow College a mission and role," Kendell told the Associated Press. "We feel that Snow is well-suited for a two-year program and we would not be agreeable to a four-year degree."

"We've been muddying
the water of our mission
for a while."
-Kenneth Walker, Edison College

Boggs has his reservations as well. "If the community college starts offering too many [baccalaureate programs], or if it's done with the intent of raising the profile, then it's not good." Townsend, who contributed to a book of policy essays called The Community College Baccalaureate (Stylus Publishing, 2004), voices a widely held concern about duplicating the efforts of four-year universities. "I'm at best supportive of baccalaureates that are very applied, but not those in education or nursing because those have been four-year degrees for many years."

Aware of worries, the state of Texas took a careful route toward CCB approval. When the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board arranged a community college baccalaureate pilot program in 2003, it issued deliberate orders:

Don't replicate the efforts of neighboring four-year schools.

Make sure to arrange back-up plans through articulation agreements.

Only offer bachelor's degrees that meet local needs.

The state's pilot program launched at three colleges (Brazosport College, Midland College, and South Texas College), but its success hasn't yet been fully determined. A review is scheduled for 2009.

Of course, no higher ed controversy would be emotional without its financial hot buttons. "Some of the people who are concerned think that if community colleges go whole hog into this, these programs can be more expensive," says Boggs. "It would require faculty to have more higher degrees, it may require lower teaching loads. Once you hire those kinds of professors you may want to spend more time on research than teaching. That may drain resources."

CCB supporters say the community college option is more affordable than other pathways. "The facilities are already there, the cost is lower to taxpayers, and it's also lower to the students because the tuition is less," says Walker.

The baccalaureates at Miami Dade did not take money away from the rest of the college, says Hernandez Hendrix.

As more states grapple with economic and demographic quandaries, the community college baccalaureate will continue to inspire or disturb officials. "It will be [worked out] state by state, and it's not going to go away," says Boggs. "Those pressures are still there, that demand for a degree. We're in an economy now in which more and more students need degrees."

Lacking strong data to evaluate the CCB, at least so far, administrators and policy makers will also investigate different solutions to workforce and student access problems. Townsend sees more cooperative models emerging. "In some states you can only offer the CCB if the area four-year schools have refused to offer the degree," she says. That's making universities pay more attention to their work with community colleges.

Increased student access, creatively managed partnerships, greater respect for community colleges. Those are outcomes that no one can argue about.

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