TOP 100 COVER STORY: Two Plus Two
Photo courtesy Lone Star College System
Students from Lone Star College-Montgomery await their degrees to be conferred as part of the 2012 commencement ceremonies.
C O V E R S T O R Y
Two Plus Two
Top Associate Degree Producers Also Offering Four-Year Degrees
By Paul Bradley
Editor, Community College Week
Community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees represent one of the fastest-growing trends in higher education, gaining momentum as policy makers confront a workforce environment demanding new skills and credentials. In all, 21 states now give community colleges the authority to confer baccalaureate degrees and enabling legislation is pending in other states.
Over a ten-year period beginning in the 2000-01 academic year, the percentage of total associate degrees awarded by Carnegie-classified public associate’s four-year colleges increased from 1 percent to 7 percent, CCWeek found. (See Analysis)
Public two-year colleges produced 66 percent of all associate degrees in 2000-01. By 2010-11, that number had dropped to 52 percent.
In 2000-01, public associates four-year colleges awarded just 4,542 associate degrees. By 2010-11, that number had risen to 72,803 — an increase of 1,503 percent.
In 2010-11, traditional public two-year colleges conferred 577,437 associate degrees. Ten years earlier, the number of degrees awarded was 420,159. That’s a difference of 37 percent.
But community colleges in growing numbers are vying to also offer the baccalaureate degree, reaching out to place-bound and financially-constrained students seeking to burnish their skills or acquire new ones.
A look at the statistics compiled by CCWeek in its annual Top 100 issue underscores the trend. Four of the top five associate degree-producing colleges are located in Florida, and each college also offers baccalaureate degrees. Florida has led the way in allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees. In the Sunshine State, 22 community colleges now offer bachelor’s degrees in fields that include nursing, elementary education, business management and biological sciences.
Miami Dade College — which awarded the most associate degrees after the for-profit behemoth the University of Phoenix Online Campus — offers 13 baccalaureate degree programs. It’s a small but growing percentage of the college’s work, said Pamela Menke, the college’s vice-provost for education.
“We are very conscious of our primary role, of working with the community and with workforce development,” she said. “Our bachelor’s programs are specifically linked to the professional workforce needs of the community.”
Colleges must demonstrate a need for a program before the local Board of Trustees and the state governing board will approve it, she said.
“Our associate degree programs feed into our bachelor’s degree programs,” she said. “We are building on what we already have. It’s more expensive to mount an associate degree program. It’s the existing program that grows up into the baccalaureate.”
The same is true at Florida State College at Jacksonville, which offers 12 baccalaureate degrees, said Donald Green, executive vice-president for instruction and student services. The college ranked fourth among associate degree producing colleges, according to CCWeek’s analysis.
Green said the college strives to identify workforce needs and is cautious about not over-producing degrees holds in low-demand fields.
“We work closely with local workforce boards,” he said. “We want to identify high wage areas where people can make a decent living.”
“The baccalaureate program allows us to start off at the associate degree and build to the baccalaureate. There is an advantage because we create all on our campus, so there is a minimum of political influence.”
“I think what community colleges have done best in the past is to help produce a middle class. This is just another way to do that. We still do the transfer function. We still offer certificates.”
Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, said four-year degree programs at community colleges are closely tied to local workforce needs.
“There is a misconception that these degrees are the same as what the university awards, but they are not,” she said. “These are strictly workforce degrees. They are applied degrees that you don’t find at universities.”
She said you won’t soon see community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees in history or biology. About the only area where the degrees overlap is nursing, which has been nearly universally identified as a high-demand field.
By explicitly tying their bachelor’s degrees programs to workforce needs, community colleges hope to blunt criticism from four-year colleges and universities and others, who complain community colleges are involving themselves in “mission creep,” delving into areas where they don’t belong, distracting them from their traditional missions and offering watered-down degrees.
Nowhere has the pushback from universities been as fierce as in Michigan, where community colleges have been pushing to offer four-year degrees for several years. Enabling legislation passed by a wide margin in the Michigan House in 2011 — collecting 70 of 110 votes — remains stalled in a Senate committee.
The proposal would allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in five applied and technical fields: maritime technology, concrete technology, energy production, culinary studies and nursing.
Advocates say that the proposal, with its focus on specialized needs, poses no threat to four-year schools. Since 2004, a series of state and national reports has prodded Michigan to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees in high-need fields. The state has the sixth-highest tuition rate for a public four-year degree in the nation, according to the Michigan Community College Association.
“Michigan is at a critical point in its history,” says a MCCA report. “As the state transitions to a knowledge-based economy, increasing the educational attainment of the workforce is paramount. The community college baccalaureate degree would allow colleges to respond to workforce shortages in specific regions, and in specific corporations and industries.”
But the state’s 15 public universities, led by the “Big Three” research institutions (Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University) remain adamantly opposed to the idea. They complain the community colleges would be competing for pieces of a shrinking budget pie and that the community college baccalaureate would be of inferior quality.
Proponents counter that there would be no direct impact in state spending, since the four-year programs would build on existing associate degree programs. The programs would also have to undergo the same rigorous accreditation process as do four-year institutions’ baccalaureate programs.
The universities wield strong political influence in the state legislature, which includes numerous graduates of the schools.
MCCA President Mike Hansen said he is hopeful that the proposal will get out of the Senate Education Committee and be approved by the full Senate.
“We think the five degrees is a very reasonable bill,” he said. “From their perspective, they see it as the camel’s nose under the tent. They don’t want to allow any bachelor’s degree programs.”
“We think we have a majority in the Senate, but not in the committee,” he added. “The governor has urged us to work this out. It’s a matter of access and affordability. For a huge percentage of our population, a bachelor’s degree is out of reach. That’s what this is about.”
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