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Community College Bachelor’s Degrees Are a Win-Win. California Should Offer More.
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Published 2 months ago on
February 14, 2024

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California’s 64-year-old higher education plan is outdated.

Community colleges’ expansion into four-year degrees is permanent.

Community college baccalaureates have been beneficial for students.


Sixty-four years ago, California adopted a master plan for higher education that, among other things, set operational parameters for the state’s three college systems.

Author Profile Picture
Dan Walters
CalMatters
Opinion

The University of California would be the research center in addition to providing undergraduate and graduate degrees up to doctorates in major fields of study, including medicine and law.

The California State University system, as it was later named, would also provide undergraduate degrees concentrated on professions such as education and engineering, and master’s degrees in its subjects.

The community college system — actually a collection of locally managed colleges — would provide two-year degrees and vocational instruction and offer lower-division classes that would prepare students for transfer into bachelor’s degree programs at UC and state universities.

Arbitrary Definitions of Academic Turf Hurt Students

By and by, as the state’s demographic and economic conditions changed, these arbitrary definitions of academic turf became complex and infuriating mazes for students. There were conflicts over what classes were needed for transfers, rivalries developed among the three systems for money and students, and the costs of higher education skyrocketed.

The state university system sought the legal right to begin offering doctorates in some fields, thus incurring opposition from UC, which had claimed a monopoly on those degrees. By the same token, the state universities resisted efforts by the community colleges to offer four-year baccalaureate degrees in some fields that the CSU schools had shunned.

A breakthrough on the latter occurred nine years ago when the Legislature gave 15 community colleges a very limited pilot program to provide baccalaureates in a few fields. Three years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation making the pilot program permanent and expanding baccalaureate authority to 30 more colleges in additional fields that don’t conflict with the state universities’ offerings.

The expansion drew sharp criticism from the CSU system even though at the time it was successfully seeking to expand its authority to award doctorates, further invading UC’s turf.

Study Shows the Benefit of Community College Baccalaureates

It now appears that community colleges’ expansion into four-year degrees is a permanent phenomenon. If anything, it’s long overdue.

Many other states moved in that direction years ago — Florida most notably —and California lagged only because of having three separate higher education systems that jealously guarded their designated roles.

Two years ago, a UC Davis research center devoted to community college issues published a study indicating that having even limited authority for Community College baccalaureates, or CCBs, has been hugely beneficial to students in terms of both availability and cost.

“Since the 1970s, CCBs have expanded nationally as part of a strategy to connect baccalaureate degrees to the labor market and increase accessibility and affordability of pathways toward social and economic mobility,” the report noted. “By providing place-based baccalaureates in applied fields of study, the California CCB is closely tied to local jobs and economies and provides more students – particularly low-income, first-generation students of color – an accessible and affordable path towards bachelor’s degree with value in local labor markets.”

During the first five years of the initial pilot program involving 15 community colleges and 15 different fields, ranging from mortuary science to dental hygiene, the study found that all but a few graduates found employment and saw their incomes increase sharply.

California Higher Education Needs an Overhaul

The success of CCBs so far is sparking efforts to widen the program, but what’s really needed is an overhaul of the 64-year-old master plan for higher education, which has outlived its usefulness.

Having the Legislature decide, college by college and program by program, which college should offer which program, is arbitrary micromanagement. The goal should be to make opportunities for higher education as wide and cost-effective as possible.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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