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San Diego Mesa College student Henry Cunningham, who is enrolled in the four-year health information management program.

San Diego Community College District

The move by a growing number of community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees has generated excitement, especially in California, where the first crop of students in a pilot program are expected to graduate this spring.

But a recent report from the state Legislature’s independent policy analysis office urges caution.

“Given numerous concerns about program selection and consultation, a lack of any graduation or work-force outcomes to date and problems in financial reporting, the Legislature may wish to exercise caution in expanding the bachelor’s degree pilot program in advance of the final evaluation,” the report found.

The policy office also cited questions about whether offering bachelor’s degrees detracts from community colleges’ core mission and whether those institutions would be better off expanding their collaboration with the state’s public universities.

The report said the Legislature has faced pressure to expand the bachelor’s degree pilot program ahead of its 2022 evaluation and before the program expires in 2023.

Edgar Cabral, a fiscal and policy analyst in the Legislative Analyst Office, said the need for caution largely stems from a lack of information about the pilot program and its outcomes.

“One of the things that makes these degrees different is that they are trying to create this combination of more management training and technical training together,” Cabral said. “In the past, someone went out and got a college degree and got technical training on the job or they started with a technical job and went back to school for a degree.”

In 2014, after much debate, California’s two-year colleges received the Legislature’s approval to begin a pilot program of bachelor’s degree programs at 15 community colleges, as long as those programs didn’t duplicate any offerings at the state’s public universities. Ten of the 15 community colleges began offering four-year degrees in 2016, with the rest following last fall.

The program was developed to help the state address a shortage of workers with four-year degrees. According to a 2015 report from the Public Policy Institute of California, the state is expected to have a short by 1.1 million workers with bachelor’s degrees by 2030.

“To meet the legislative requirements of this program, our colleges made rapid progress in establishing these degrees and enrolling students,” Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications in the California two-year system, said via email. “Employers report that the new degrees are giving students the necessary skills for work requiring more than a certificate or associate degree.”

However, Feist said, the two-year system’s leaders agree with the report’s conclusions.

“More time and data will be required to fully evaluate this pilot program,” he said. “Accomplishing this will require extending the ability of colleges to enroll more freshmen into the existing pilot bachelor’s degree programs.”

Questions About Process

The report criticized the system for rushing approval of four-year degree programs and questioned the process that allowed them to be included. The approved degree programs include industries such as biomanufacturing, automotive technology and mortuary science.

“The rapid approval process required that [the two-year system’s] leaders make decisions about the proposed bachelor’s degrees with substantially less information than routinely provided for new community college programs,” the report said. The two-year college system spent four months after the Legislature approved the pilot selecting the 15 programs and another four months considering them before finalizing which disciplines would be allowed to participate.

The report also addressed concerns that community colleges were offering bachelor’s degrees in areas where “state licensing and industry certification do not require a bachelor’s degree.” And it raised questions about four colleges that eliminated associate-degree programs in favor of bachelor’s degrees. Foothill and West Los Angeles Colleges are discontinuing associate-degree programs in dental hygiene, the report found, while Modesto College dropped a two-year respiratory-therapy degree and Santa Ana College ended its two-year occupational studies program.

“We found no evidence of employer need, licensing, certification or accreditation requirements to justify discontinuing the dental hygiene or respiratory therapy associate degree programs,” the report said.

In occupational studies, however, there has been movement by an accreditor to shift entry-level requirements for occupational therapy assistants from an associate to a bachelor’s degree. An even larger debate has been taking place for years over entry-level degrees for nursing. But because of competition with the universities, nursing programs were excluded from the pilot.

The report did highlight benefits of the program, such as the enthusiasm from employers and students. For instance, nearly 900 students so far have applied for admission to one of the 15 community college bachelor’s degree programs. The report also found that employers reported that the new degrees led to more nuanced job preparation and that they were extending early job offers to students.

Cabral said one of the interesting things the state office found was that many participating students appear demographically similar to community college transfer students, but when they interviewed the students, they learned many of them hadn’t previously considered getting a four-year degree because they were already working or there wasn’t a nearby California State University campus.

“It’s clear that students and employers are pleased with the program,” said Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, which is offering one of the bachelor’s degree programs at San Diego Mesa College, in health information management. “These are highly valued programs because they lead to the work force and address the fact that employers do require and/or prefer the bachelor’s degree in most of these fields.”

Carroll, who advocated for creating the pilot, said community colleges have been careful to stay away from programs like nursing because opposition from universities would have hurt the entire pilot.

Mesa’s bachelor’s program in health information management began in 2016 with about 20 students. According to the college, students can earn from $80,000 to $140,000 in salary a year after graduation. Carroll said none of the public universities offered a similar program.

“The world of work has changed,” Carroll said. “Employers seek graduates who are more accomplished and more able to stand on their own, particularly in administrative systems.”

And as more industries and disciplines shift to either requiring or preferring a bachelor’s degree, particularly in areas where universities can’t provide one, it puts more pressure on community colleges to be able to respond, she said.

“We had a hard time narrowing down our choices to one, and we were only allowed to submit one [discipline],” said Carroll. “Health information management had the clearest work-force value and was the most needed in terms of volume of employees. But there were many more we could have offered, and throughout the state many other fields and jobs where the public universities are not providing training.”

She points to cybersecurity, radiological technology, information technology and physical therapy as fields where employers may be forced look outside California or the country for employees.

Carroll said California is catching up to a trend that has been better received in other states. Florida’s two-year colleges, for instance, have been allowed to offer bachelor’s degrees since 2001. The report said that in 2017, 86 community colleges in 16 states offered more than 400 bachelor’s degrees.

“It’s unfortunate that this is still a little controversial in California,” she said. “This isn’t the kind of discussion that is occurring in other … states where programs are working well and the kinks are sorted out. As people learn more about the program, that will be accomplished in California as well. I think it would be foolish not to extend the pilot duration and I believe it will be extended one way or another during the course of this current year.”

Another evaluation of the program will happen later this year, with a final evaluation set for 2022.

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