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New legislation makes permanent California’s 15 pilot community college baccalaureate programs.

San Diego Community College District

California community college advocates and leaders are applauding new state legislation that allows two-year institutions to award four year-degrees.

Assembly Bill 927, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on Oct. 6, makes baccalaureate programs being piloted at 15 community colleges permanent and allows other community colleges across the state to also create the programs. The law allows the California Community Colleges system to offer up to 30 new bachelor’s degree programs per year, provided the programs fill different workforce needs than programs already available within the state’s university systems.

“We think it really allows our community colleges the flexibility and the authority to continue designing programs to meet the needs of California’s ever-changing economy and workforce,” said David O’Brien, vice chancellor for governmental relations for California Community Colleges.

Star Rivera-Lacey, president and superintendent at Palomar College, a two-year institution north of San Diego, said the legislation will give students affordable bachelor’s degree options at colleges where “they’ve already been successful” without having to encounter new hurdles transferring to a four-year university.

“For us, it’s like Christmas,” Rivera-Lacey said. “Community colleges have always been a place of accessibility. To add a bachelor’s degree to that -- I think this is a game changer, and I think California has been waiting for it for a while.”

The new legislation allows community college administrators to submit proposals for new bachelor’s degrees to the office of the chancellor of the community college system during two annual cycles. Fifteen programs per cycle will be considered and must pass a review process by the chancellor’s office, California State University and University of California systems administrators, and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. The number of baccalaureate degree programs offered by a community college district must be fewer than a quarter of the number of the district’s associate degree programs.

The restrictions are designed to ensure the chancellor’s office isn’t overwhelmed by proposals and community colleges don’t duplicate programs already offered by the state’s university systems, O’Brien said.

Two dozen states currently allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees. Many did so only after hard-fought battles between supporters and opponents of such programs. University system leaders frequently resisted these measures, arguing community colleges would offer similar programs and compete with them for students or undermine existing transfer pathways and partnerships. The California legislation had no publicly stated opposition, however.

“The University of California will continue to evaluate the impact of AB 927 on the University’s instructional mission,” read a statement from the system's Office of the President. “Although the University did not take a position on AB 927, we appreciate the Legislature’s interest in enhancing educational outcomes for students across California.”

Alison Wrynn, associate vice chancellor of academic programs, innovations and faculty development for the CSU system, said Cal State leaders did worry about duplicate degree programs and advocated for a thorough review process as part of the bill.

“We are concerned that there could be overlap, which is why the bill addresses that issue,” she said. “I wanted to be sure that the CSU had time to conduct a review of the proposal, and if we saw overlap, we had a process by which to express that and have a conversation about it and come to an agreement. We feel like we have the opportunity to have these conversations.”

She said the review process creates “a little more work for my office and my staff,” but otherwise “there should be no impact.”

The idea of community college baccalaureate programs in California wasn’t always so widely accepted. Constance Carroll, president and CEO of the California Community College Baccalaureate Association and retired chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, said the pilot programs, which were established seven years ago, initially faced opposition similar to other states. But the pilots -- which underwent two evaluations by the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office -- also gave stakeholders an opportunity to see the effects of these kinds of programs for themselves.

She also believes the pandemic exposed how community colleges could play an important role to meet the state’s workforce demands alongside four-year institutions.

“California has many, many unmet job needs, employment needs, that have crested during the pandemic … so the timing was also right,” she said.

Carroll also noted that many fields that used to welcome graduates with associate degrees have shifted to requiring entry-level employees to have bachelor’s degrees, forcing community colleges to phase out some of their two-year programs. Community colleges now have an opportunity to adapt to the labor market and offer students inexpensive degrees that lead to jobs, she said. Tuition for a California community college baccalaureate degree program is capped at $10,560 for all four years.

“It’s beyond affordable,” she said. “This is the greatest bargain imaginable.”

Angela Kersenbrock, president of the national Community College Baccalaureate Association, said community college baccalaureate programs also allow students to continue their education in their local communities rather than transfer to an institution elsewhere.

“It’s at your local community college -- you’re already comfortable there, they’re aligned with industries in your community,” she said. “For the community, you’re not going to have somebody who leaves, goes two or three hours away and then never comes back, so it helps the communities as well as the families.”

Community college leaders are now eagerly preparing to brainstorm and pitch new baccalaureate degree programs.

Judy Miner, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District in Northern California and chair of the California Community College Baccalaureate Association Board of Directors, said she felt a combination of “ecstasy, relief, excitement” when the bill became law.

Her district hosts one of the pilot programs, a baccalaureate in dental hygiene at Foothill College, and she hopes the district will also be allowed to offer bachelor’s degrees in respiratory therapy and automotive technology. She also believes conversations with employers in Silicon Valley will yield more ideas for new programs.

Advocates of the legislation noted that they might want to renegotiate parts of it in the future. For example, O’Brien, of the chancellor’s office, said community colleges could help four-year institutions by offering some of the same programs in fields where they’re struggling to keep up with demand.

Miner noted that the law prevents community colleges from offering nursing baccalaureates, even though universities don’t have enough seats to accommodate all the would-be nurses looking for training, but she plans to focus her efforts on what the law does allow.

“I’m sure those will be conversations far off into the future,” she said.

In the meantime, passage of the legislation in an influential state such as California is a win for the broader national movement to legalize community college baccalaureate programs.

“Given the size and importance of the state, California being a part of this effort will definitely strengthen the national movement,” Carroll said.

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