2 vs. 4

After long legislative fight, Arizona lawmakers turn back bid by community colleges to offer four-year degrees.
May 12, 2005

Arizona has one of the fastest growing populations in the United States. So even though it has large community colleges and universities, capacity issues are hot topics.

Community colleges pushed hard this year to deal with the capacity issue, in part, by allowing two-year institutions to offer selected bachelor's degrees. The plan -- opposed by the state's public universities -- made it through the House of Representatives. But it was blocked in the Senate and advocates for the proposal admitted this week that it was effectively dead -- although a plan to study the idea may still win approval.

The debate over community colleges offering four-year degrees is a national one. Proponents see it as a logical expansion of community colleges' teaching mission, noting their success at recruiting and graduating non-traditional students. But some community college leaders fear that four-year degrees will distract two-year institutions from their missions, and some four-year institutions fear that "mission creep" will have more colleges competing for limited dollars. The discussion in Arizona is particularly significant because its community college system is well regarded nationally, and the Maricopa Community College District is among the largest in the United States.

In Arizona this year, the plan would have allowed four-year degrees in certain fields, such as teacher education, health professions, and police and fire science. Rick DeGraw, director of communications for the Maricopa district, said that community colleges were particularly well suited to offer bachelor's programs in these "hands on" areas.

Maricopa backed the idea based on discussions its officials had with employers, who complained about being unable to find enough graduates, and from students, who said that they couldn't find the courses they need at convenient hours at the public universities, McGraw said.

"It's very clear that people in this state need more opportunities for four-year degrees," McGraw said.

It was unclear how many students would take advantage of the programs, if offered, McGraw said. But he added that the system could have handled the growth easily. Maricopa expects to educate 300,000 students this year, he said. "Volume is not a problem for us."

While Maricopa is in the sprawling Phoenix area, rural community colleges also want to offer four-year degrees. Karen A. Nicodemus, president of Cochise College, said that she was happy to focus on two-year programs when branches of the four-year universities gave her students an option to finish bachelor's degrees "without leaving their rural homes."

But she said that in some areas -- like nursing and fire science -- there was a real need for her institution to offer bachelor's programs.

"You can't have discussions about a knowledge-based economy and feel like it should only be accessible to those who live in an urban area," she said.

Opponents of the plan -- who carried the day in the Senate -- said that the plan wasn't well thought out. Anne Barton, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Board of Regents, said, "There was no needs assessment of what programs weren't available through normal channels."

Barton said that "through a little bit of redefinition of mission and dividing up the responsibility," the four-year universities could meet the demands for additional offerings.

Many officials at those four-year campuses stressed that they needed more money to meet their current missions -- and worried about shifting resources to building new programs. In an e-mail message, Virgil Renzulli, vice president of public affairs at Arizona State University, said, "The three state universities are underfunded and receive no capital funds or building renewal. How then could dozens of new four-year schools be created?"


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