Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bachelor's Degrees from California's Community Colleges

‘The Times They Are a-Changin',’ sang Bob Dylan in 1964.

A half-century later, the times are indeed changing dramatically for California’s community colleges.

State officials recently chose 15 colleges to offer four-year Bachelor’s degrees in high-need fields, ranging from air frame manufacturing technology and dental hygiene to health information management to automotive technology, by the fall of 2016.

A total of 34 out of California’s 112 community colleges competed to be in the program.

The right to award 4-year bachelor’s degree, instead of the usual 2-year associate degree, has profound implications for California. Until now, 4-years degrees were the exclusive domain of the California State University (CSU) and the University of California systems. Students equated the CSU and the UC systems with higher education in the state.

Now they can count on a new partner, California Community Colleges (CCC), after the Legislature passed Senate Bill 850 last year that removed this stifling restriction on community colleges, designed more than 50 years ago as part of California’s Master Plan for Higher Education.

Two immediate benefits will be in affordability and in meeting the urgent needs of California’s knowledge-based economy.

First, it will cost students about $10,500 over four years for a bachelor’s degree at a community college, whereas the same degree now costs $22,000 even at the low-cost CSU.

Second, only by including community colleges in the loop can California hope to produce 1 million more workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2020 to meet its workforce needs.

The golden state, however, is not the trailblazer in this regard: it joins 21 other states where community colleges have been offering bachelor’s degrees for some years now.

Still, better late than never.

The 15 community colleges selected to offer bachelor’s degrees in specific fields are:

Antelope Valley College - Airframe manufacturing technology
Bakersfield College - Industrial automation
Crafton Hills College - Emergency services and allied health systems
Cypress College - Mortuary science
Feather River College - Equine industry
Foothill College (Bay Area) and West Los Angeles College - Dental hygiene
Mira Costa College - Bio-manufacturing
Skyline College (Bay Area) and Modesto Junior College - Respiratory care
Rio Hondo College - Automotive technology
Mesa College and Shasta College - Health information management
Santa Ana College - Occupational studies
Santa Monica College - Interaction design

By itself it is a remarkable development, but combined synergistically with “America’s College Promise” that President Obama unveiled in his State of the Union address on January 20, 2015, the right of community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees makes it even more so.

Said the President in his address:  “… I am sending this Congress a bold plan to lower the cost of community college – to zero. Forty percent of our college students choose community college. Some are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job. Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt. Understand, you've got to earn it - you've got to keep your grades up and graduate on time.”

It is true that need-based Pell-Grants already make community colleges virtually free for poor and working-class students. The grants this year, for instance, cover up to $5,730 in college costs, while the average community college tuition runs about $3,800. However, if tuition becomes free, students can use their Pell-Grants to cover expenses such as textbooks, housing and transportation, factors that often derail student graduation more than tuition.

About 7.7 million Americans attend community college for credit, of whom 3.1 million attend full time and 4.6 million part time, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, based on 2012 data. The California Community Colleges make up the largest higher education system in the nation, providing a gateway to higher education for over 2 million students per year.

California’s community college system has crossed the Rubicon. The future looks promising and bright for millions of Californians who can now count on an affordable and quality bachelor’s degree to lead creative and fulfilling lives.

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