Fighting for the Bachelor's Degree

Officials at Harper College really want to offer bachelor’s degrees.

And they have been willing to do just about anything to gain permission to do so, including go against the wishes of two state boards in Illinois and many neighboring two- and four-year institutions in suburban Chicago.

May 11, 2009

Officials at Harper College really want to offer bachelor’s degrees.

And they have been willing to do just about anything to gain permission to do so, including go against the wishes of two state boards in Illinois and many neighboring two- and four-year institutions in suburban Chicago.

Last week, the Illinois General Assembly debated a bill that would give Harper College the ability to offer two bachelor of applied science degrees on a four-year trial basis. Though the original language of the bill does not specify which two degrees the college would offer – a quirk some legislators have sought to remedy through an amendment – Harper officials clarify that they would offer programs in public safety administration/homeland security and technology management. These programs, they note, are designed for “working adult students” who already have their associate degree and would meet “specific, documented workforce needs” in their district.

The situation in Illinois – where a request by one community college to offer two four-year programs has set off an intense political fight – suggests that the national debate on community college bachelor's degrees is far from over. While these programs are now normal in Florida and growing in eleven other states, there are other parts of the country where the movement is just starting and is facing tough opposition.

Among the stated conditions under which Harper would be able to offer these degrees, nearby public universities must have the “right of first refusal,” or ability to offer similar degree-finishing programs on Harper’s or another locally accessible campus. Currently, these two programs do not exist at a nearby four-year institution. Also, these programs must not require any additional local taxes, state funds or tuition dollars from those students at the college who are not enrolled in them.

Such programs, however, would require substantial funds just to get off the ground, even on a trial basis. Also, as Harper plans to set its bachelor’s degree tuition rate the same as nearby Northern Illinois University, it would lose a significant amount of money per student when compared to the actual cost of offering the program.

Phil Burdrick, a Harper spokesman, said the trial run would cost the college almost $2.5 million. Though most of the program would be covered by tuition dollars, he said the college expects about 30 percent of the cost to be covered by corporate donors and funds from the Harper College Educational Foundation. He noted, however, that these dedicated funds were safe from the current financial crisis and had been “guaranteed” to the college if the four-year programs are created.

Though Harper has promised that it would not ask for additional state funds during the trial period, all bets are off if and when it would get full permission to offer bachelor’s degree programs in the future. Burdrick said one of the goals of the trial offering was to piece together a cost analysis report to recommend future funding models.

“As far as what the true costs are, that’s a question we’d have to answer after the trial,” Burdrick said. “Somebody has to serve these people, and we’re looking at a model that’s promising and will open up access to these degrees. There’s the potential that we’d consider a variety of funding models.”

If this bill passes, Illinois would not be the first state to allow its community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. Still, such precedent has not convinced many Illinois critics of the value of the idea; many of them cite the same concerns as naysayers in other states.

None are perhaps more concerned with Harper’s ambitions than officials at Northern Illinois University, located about an hour west of Harper’s main campus. Kenneth Zehnder, Northern’s associate director of external affairs, has spent the week in the state capital of Springfield, lobbying against the bill. In addition to potentially stealing students from the institution, he is worried the move could boil down to a competition for state resources in the future.

“Harper has not committed to not using public funds after the trial period,” said a concerned Zehnder. “If other community college districts in the state were to take the same road – many not being in as affluent areas as Harper – they would ultimately have to compete for public funds. And we all have already not been funded adequately.”

Northern Illinois officials also view the move by Harper as “mission creep.” Zehnder argued that the mission of providing bachelor's degrees in convenient locations is being met by others. For example, he noted that his university has expanded its off-campus baccalaureate completion programs substantially in recent years. In 2002, the university helped about 600 students earn their bachelor’s degrees off site. This year, it is serving more than 2,500 and is looking to expand.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education is also firmly against the move by Harper. Don Sevener, board spokesman, chided Harper’s proposal for lack of specificity, arguing that it would set a dangerous precedent.

“There are many problems with the proposal itself,” said Sevener, noting that he was troubled by Harper’s initial draft of the bill that did not specify in which programs it waned to offer bachelor’s degrees. “Our overriding concern is that this is a slippery slope. We’ve never approved a pilot baccalaureate program at a community college. Honestly, I’m not ever sure what a pilot baccalaureate program is. Either you have one or you don’t. I worry for the students if this program isn’t self sustainable.”

Sevener added that the board does not want any community colleges to eventually become bachelor’s degree granting institutions, noting that “there are plenty of other fine public institutions in the state that fulfill that mission.”

If the ire of one state governing board was not enough, the Illinois Community College Board also strongly opposes Harper’s proposal. Steve Morse, board spokesman, concurred with Sevener’s assessment.

“The bill is poorly written and doesn’t change enough laws to accomplish what it wants to accomplish,” Morse said. “Also, no employer has come forward and said we need this knowledge base. If that knowledge base isn’t available, why don’t these corporate donors go to a four-year institution and offer these private funds to them? Then, we wouldn’t have to change any laws.”

Both the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois State Board of Higher Education have sponsored a separate bill in the state legislature that they consider a more acceptable alternative to Harper’s proposal. It would provide grant funding to four-year institutions that wish to open baccalaureate completion programs on existing community college campuses. This, they argue, solves the access problem while keeping the state’s higher education system within its previously accepted bounds.

Debra D. Bragg, director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said she expects more states to consider allowing their community colleges the ability to offer bachelor’s degrees. She, however, noted that her research on the subject has yet to reveal whether or not this practice is a success.

“Enrollments are not very large in these programs,” Bragg said of community college bachelor’s programs around the country. “Most of them are so new that students haven’t even graduated and found jobs yet. The argument was made that there was a workforce need for these programs. Still, they haven’t been around for us to see how successful they are.”

The Harper bill has been approved in the House of Representatives and is being considered by the Senate. The alternative proposal by both of the state boards has been approved by the Senate and is being reviewed by the House.


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