Who Owns the Bachelor's Degree?

Community college presidents believe they should be allowed to award bachelor's degree to reach students left behind by traditional four-year institutions. Growing evidence says they're right, Mary Alice McCarthy writes.

April 12, 2019
 
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Presidents of America’s public universities are worried that community colleges have strayed from their mission. The source of their concern? The growing push by community colleges, state legislatures and student advocates to grant two-year colleges the authority to award some bachelor’s degrees.

According to Inside Higher Ed’s Survey of Community College Presidents, 70 percent of public university presidents worry that community college baccalaureate programs are evidence of “mission creep.” An even greater share disagrees with the idea that community colleges are well positioned to help low-income and place-bound students complete a bachelor’s degree. And about half of the presidents do not think community colleges can help address disparities in bachelor’s-degree attainment across different racial and ethnic groups.

Community college presidents feel otherwise -- and a growing body of research backs them up. Eighty percent agreed with the statement that their institutions are “in a strong position to offer bachelor’s degrees to students who would otherwise not have access to them due to cost or location,” and 85 percent agreed that giving them degree-granting authority could help close gaps in degree attainment.

Community colleges have been at the center of efforts to increase bachelor’s-degree attainment for over a decade -- whether it was the Obama administration’s American Graduation Initiative or today’s College Promise campaign. But the system we have developed to get community college students to the finish line of a bachelor’s degree does not work very well and may even be making the problem worse.

It is built on the premise that students can transfer easily from a community college to a four-year institution and complete their degree. But the transfer process is rarely easy. According to a 2017 GAO report, community college students lose an average of 37 percent of their credits during transfer. The more credits a student loses, the less likely they are to complete a bachelor’s degree.

There is also evidence that the transfer process is fueling racial and ethnic disparities in degree attainment, as African American and Hispanic students are more likely to start in a community college and thus are more likely to lose credits along the way to a bachelor’s degree, a phenomenon that researchers call the “racial transfer gap.”

Community colleges are the right place to focus efforts to increase bachelor’s-degree attainment. They are home to 40 percent of undergraduate students, and even though many enroll with the goal of completing a bachelor’s degree, fewer than 15 percent will get there. Moving the needle on degree attainment will depend upon increasing that share. But colleges need freedom to explore new strategies beyond transfer.

A growing number of states agree and are granting their community colleges authority to award some bachelor’s degrees themselves. Rather than putting the onus on community college students to go out and find a bachelor’s degree program, they are bringing the bachelor’s degree to the community college.

The degrees are generally work force oriented -- many are bachelor’s of applied science -- and most states require the college provide evidence of unmet labor market demand and/or ensure the degree does not duplicate programs offered by local public universities.

Florida was among the first states to try the approach and has taken it the furthest, with nearly 200 degree offerings in fields like nursing, IT, business and education. All but one of the state’s 28 predominantly two-year institutions offer at least one bachelor’s degree, which cost an average of $13,000, well below what students would pay at a public university. In 2018, more than 6,000 students graduated from those programs.

Would these same students have been just as successful at one of the state’s public universities? It is impossible to know for sure, but a recent study found that enrollments in universities located near one of the colleges actually increased after it started offering bachelor’s degrees. The same study found that enrollments in for-profit institutions, which charge many times more for tuition than public institutions, went down significantly in areas where community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees.

Data from the Florida Department of Education indicate that three out of four students enrolled in the bachelor’s programs were from underserved populations. More research is needed, but these findings suggest that community college bachelor’s degree programs in Florida are serving a different group of students than most public universities -- and providing students an affordable alternative.

On March 15, Wyoming became the 26th state to pass legislation allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. A headline from the Associated Press captures the moment this way: “UW fails to nix bill on 4-year degrees at community colleges.” The University of Wyoming, the state’s one -- and only -- public four-year institution, opposed the law, arguing that it contradicted efforts toward greater “efficiency and streamlining.” But for residents of Rock Springs, located 200 miles west of Laramie and home to Western Wyoming Community College, a much more convenient route to a bachelor’s degree will soon open up.

To be sure, state policy makers need to be careful as they consider which degrees two-year colleges should award. The policy emphasis on labor market value is well placed. But as the degree requirements for good jobs continue to rise, ensuring sufficient access to affordable bachelor’s degrees is the bigger challenge. And the fact is, community colleges are well positioned to offer bachelor’s degrees to low-income and place-bound students, and they can help address disparities in degree attainment.

They are more diverse, more affordable and more likely to enroll underrepresented students than their public four-year counterparts, and they operate in many more communities. Leveraging community colleges to expand access to valuable bachelor’s degrees isn’t a case of mission creep -- it’s smart policy.

Bio

Mary Alice McCarthy is director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America.

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