A proposal that would fundamentally change the relationship between Arizona’s public universities and its community colleges is piquing the interest of many in the state, but is giving rise to more questions than answers.
On Friday , Ernest Calderón, president-elect of the Arizona Board of Regents, surprised many community college leaders by encouraging the presidents of Arizona’s three four-year universities to allow students in select majors to complete three years’ worth of coursework at a community college before completing a baccalaureate degree on a main university campus in their fourth year.
He estimated that this modified “three-plus-one” model, which he admittedly borrowed from Regis University , a private institution in Colorado, could potentially cut the price of a baccalaureate degree by 60 percent because students would pay university tuition -- which is more expensive -- and any room and board expenses only for one year. Though transfer and articulation models of this nature do exist between universities and community colleges around the country, no such “three-plus-one” model has been adopted statewide; on most campuses, "two plus two" is the norm.
Under Calderón’s plan, Arizona’s universities would develop strict four-year curricula for a handful of “high-demand majors,” such as teacher education. Students interested in pursuing one of these majors, who had also earned at least six college credits in their senior year of high school, would be admitted to Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University or the University of Arizona. However, they would be assigned by their university to attend a community college for their first three years. During this time, they would pay the significantly smaller community college tuition – around $2,200 per year instead of about $6,800 at one of the four-year institutions.
“There, right off the bat, working mothers and fathers and working students see, ‘My gosh, I’m on a track to earn my bachelor’s degree, but I’m attending a community college, and if I take all the courses I’m supposed to take and pass them to a certain satisfaction, I’m on my way,’ ” Calderón said Friday.
Four-year institutions have often fought against allowing community colleges the ability to offer upper-level coursework because it potentially takes students, and thus tuition dollars, away from them. Another roadblock is that these four-year institutions cannot always vet the quality of the upper-level courses being offered. In Arizona, however, the universities are at or nearing capacity.
Students in their third year under Calderón’s plan would still take courses at a community college, but their coursework would be strictly controlled by their respective four-year institutions.
“The community colleges provide instruction as approved by the universities,” Calderón explained. “If the universities don’t believe [community college] faculty is up to the standards of particular course or feel that the faculty is not teaching the course in a particular way, then the community colleges will be required to buy services from the university.”
Finally, students pursuing these “high-demand majors” will complete their baccalaureate degree at a main university campus, paying the full tuition price of a year at a four-year institution. Though Calderón admitted this deferment of paying full university tuition until a student’s fourth year would cut into the system’s “revenue streams,” he argued more Arizona residents would benefit from the increased access to baccalaureate degrees.
Response Around The State
Despite Calderón’s claims that such a proposal would require the full cooperation of the state’s community colleges, some leaders in the two-year sector say they were not even consulted during the president-elect’s vetting of this “three-plus-one” idea.
“What strikes me is that, in all the pronouncements there was talk of collaboration with the community colleges, but we weren’t consulted as to this particular board agenda item or what they had in mind,” said Roy Flores, chancellor of Pima Community College, in Tucson. “If you’re going to advance these ideas, or any ideas, and they’re predicated on developing partnerships, you need to make sure that you talk with all the institutions ahead of time.”
Flores said he would need more information, such at the exact majors being deemed “high-demand,” from Calderón and the Regents to make a judgment about the proposal. He also noted that the idea of a “three-plus-one” or “two-plus-two” transfer model was less important to him than creating stable pathways for his students to gain access to a four-year institution and earn a baccalaureate degree.
“At some point, we have to find ways to improve on student success and not just access,” Flores said. “The endgame needs to be more graduates and not just more enrollment. Some of those discussions just don’t take place.”
Rufus Glasper, chancellor of Maricopa Community College, the largest in the state, said he was also not made aware of the proposal before it was floated by Calderón.
He noted that Maricopa already has the permission to transfer students with greater than 60 credits in certain fields such as nursing or allied health. Still, he acknowledged that the major change required for Calderón’s proposal would be the allowance of community colleges to offer 300-level or major-level courses.
“I think it has its merits as a funding model to move students through the pipeline and then have them transfer to a university,” Glasper said. “At the same time, we need to address the notion of mission creep, especially with our local boards. It’s surely a conversation we need to have.”
Presidents of Arizona's three universities did not offer comment on Calderón’s proposal at Friday's meeting. The day prior, however, they presented their own proposal  for revamping the higher education system before the board. Their plan does not call for the significant "three-plus-one" model suggested by Calderón but does hint at streamlining transferability between community colleges and the state universities.
The presidents' proposal pushes to establish a fourth "baccalaureate campus" in the state by 2010 and develop four "new highly-integrated partnership campuses or regional universities established in collaboration with community college partners" by 2012.
For some, Calderón’s proposal is far from mission creep.
“Anything that improves access to baccalaureate degrees through community colleges in beneficial to students,” said Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureates Association, a group that lobbies to offer more bachelor’s degrees at two-year institutions. “It doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
Hagan suspected that, like the few community colleges that do offer four-year degrees, applied baccalaureates would be offered in the Arizona model. She said she would be surprised if more liberal arts majors, such as English, would be promoted.
George R. Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, acknowledged some of the benefits of this model, such as the cost savings to students, but questioned whether Arizona’s community colleges had the capacity to house these extra baccalaureate-track students.
“If it results in denying access to students who need to get into community college because you’re serving upper-division students, then I would be quite concerned by it and not in favor of it,” Boggs said. “On the other hand, if the community college is not denying access to traditional students and helping some complete baccalaureate degrees before they go off to a university, that would be an advantage.”
Some education scholars suspect that if a “three-plus-one” model were to have success statewide, Arizona would be one of the few places it could happen.
Stephen G. Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama, said the state’s small number of universities and single major urban area of Phoenix, which also houses the largest community college district, allow for all of the state’s institutions to come to the table to hash out a deal.
“Some of the fastest-growing states didn’t sufficiently add capacity in the post-baby boom era,” Katsinas said. “Across the country, in each recession since the Vietnam War, states have dug deeper and deeper into higher education, still the biggest discretionary item, to meet their budgets. I’m not surprised this would come up in Arizona. They have the same number of universities now as they did 40 years ago, and look what the population was 40 years ago.”