Saturday, November 09, 2013

Bachelor's Degrees in Community Colleges

The 1960 master plan for higher education in California identified the following distinct roles for its three-tier system:
- University of California (UC) is to be the state’s primary public research university, with authority to grant bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and other professional degrees.
- California State University (CSU) is to focus on liberal arts and sciences and grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
- California Community College (CCC) is to offer lower-division instruction transferable to 4-year colleges, provide remedial and vocational training, and grant two-year associate’s degree.

According to the plan, the top 12.5 percent of all graduating public high school students are eligible for admission to UC, the top 33.3 percent for admission to CSU, and all persons 18 years or older who can “benefit from instruction” are eligible to attend CCC.
Fifty plus years later, it is clear that dramatic shifts in California’s demography, mode of education, jobs and “facts on ground” require a thorough review of the master plan and quick enactment of core recommendations from educators, legislators, teachers, unions and students.

Although the plan had gone through several official reviews in 50 years, resulting in hundreds of recommendations, only a few, and that too at the most superficial level, had seen the light of day.

It is clear to anyone but the most jaded and reactive segment of the population that the master plan, designed when baby boomers were reaching college age, fails to serve the needs of Californians in the 21st Century. A high school diploma that back then would have sufficed for a managerial position is more likely to elicit scorn for even a door-to-door sales position now. 

Nowhere has the master plan’s inadequacy become more apparent than in the objectives it set for California’s community colleges half-a-century ago.  

It is imperative that the role and scope of the CCC system be expanded as soon as possible not only to increase graduation rates but also to meet the Golden State’s growing workforce needs.

There are two areas in which immediate intervention is required.

First, the increasing complexity in transferring credits to CSUs and UCs force many community college students to repeat courses, which not only delay their progress but sometimes force them to drop out. Students who take prescribed courses and do well are, in theory, guaranteed admission to CSU or UC systems. That’s the problem: the plan works mostly in theory and not often enough in practice. This has to change immediately if the CSU and UC systems are serious about educating all eligible Californians for purposeful employment and self-fulfillment.

Second, and more importantly, community colleges should have the right to grant bachelor’s degrees in selected vocational fields, such as nursing, automotive and biotechnology, to meet workforce demand and boost employment.

Demand for nursing, for instance, is consistently strong. But CSUs cannot graduate nearly enough nurses for the healthcare system. Many community colleges, on the other hand, have been training nurses for decades. (Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, to name only one, has had a top flight nursing program for several years).

What can be more logical than the right to confer bachelor’s degree in a field that community colleges are eminently qualified to do?

Nothing, except that officials from universities and private colleges, fearing competition, are vigorously lobbying against the idea, claiming that granting four-year degrees would undermine the original mission of the two-year system.

This is, of course, a red herring. Universities and private colleges are trying to protect their turf at the expense of justice and economic well-being of Californians, particularly those from poor families and rural areas.

Despite their resistance, Brice Harris, Chancellor of California’s 112 community colleges with its 2.4 million students, has appointed a 16-member panel to consider the plan. The group includes faculty, administrators, a student, a college trustee and representatives of UC and CSU systems. (In all fairness, the panel should include more student representatives since it is their future that is at stake.)
Californians must throw their support behind the plan to allow community colleges the right to grant four-year degrees, at least in selected vocational fields. While cost and accreditation issues will certainly pose challenges, they are expected to be more than compensated by employment and economic benefits.
Besides, California would merely be following a growing trend: As many as 21 states have already approved baccalaureate programs at community colleges, most recently Michigan, which last year granted junior colleges authority to offer four-year degrees in a limited number of fields such as maritime technology and culinary arts.

Proposed in 1960, California’s master plan for higher education no longer fits the bill. The time has come for its significant overhaul, one of which would be to enlarge the scope and power of community colleges in granting four-year degrees in selected fields. After all, if public colleges cannot meet the aspirational and professional needs of their communities in the 21st century, how can they continue to be called “community” colleges?

No comments: