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An intentional fire was set at Feather River College to ensure the health of its forested campus. The college has plans to start a baccalaureate program that teaches these wildfire-prevention techniques.

Feather River College

Three California community colleges are fighting to start new baccalaureate programs, which their leaders insist would fill critical local workforce needs and help students who couldn’t otherwise afford to pursue a four-year degree. But their plans have faced repeated roadblocks from the California State University system. Cal State faculty members argue these programs, and future programs like them, shouldn’t proceed without their go-ahead.

The waylaid degree offerings are part of a first group of programs proposed by community colleges under Assembly Bill 927. The legislation, signed into law last October, made permanent a set of 15 pilot baccalaureate programs at community colleges and allows new four-year programs to be created at these institutions.

Under the law, California community colleges can apply to offer up to 30 new baccalaureate programs annually if the programs don’t duplicate existing programs at universities in the state. Whether programs meet those criteria is hashed out in a review process with representatives of the California State University system and the University of California system, followed by approval from the California Community College system chancellor’s office.

During this application cycle, five out of the nine programs proposed initially faced objections from Cal State or UC campuses. While community college leaders were able to allay most concerns, and many of the objections were withdrawn, three programs continue to undergo scrutiny from Cal State faculty members: a cyberdefense and analysis program at San Diego City College, an ecosystem restoration and applied fire management program at Feather River College, and a biomanufacturing program at Moorpark College. The programs aim to admit between 25 and 35 students per year.

“For us, the emphasis is really on equity and equitable access to career pathways,” said Julius Sokenu, president of Moorpark College. “And we see this as an opportunity to not only to partner with the industry sector in building curriculum that responds to their needs, but it’s an opportunity to support families in our counties, an opportunity to develop pathways to wealth building and salaries that lift folks out of poverty.”

Beth Steffel, chair of the Cal State Academic Senate, said faculty members want to make sure these baccalaureate programs are “expanding” on the degree programs already available in the state rather than replicating them. She believes well-defined roles for the different systems ultimately mean a wider variety of options for students.

“I think at the end of the day, we want to be good fiduciaries of people’s money, people’s time, and have excellent education outcomes for students,” she said. “I think we can all agree that that’s what we want. I think the tricky part is figuring out how to get there in a … state as big as California.”

Half of states now allow community college baccalaureate degrees. California launched its first community college baccalaureate programs on a pilot basis seven years ago.

Debra Bragg, professor emeritus of higher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the education consulting firm Bragg and Associates, said nationally it’s common for these degrees to meet resistance from universities when legislation permitting them first passes. She also noted that California higher education is structured such that both the community colleges and the Cal State system are both intended to offer “broader access” to students than research universities, which could lead to some mission overlap.

Against that backdrop, this standoff seems “kind of predictable,” she said.

Nonetheless, she was surprised, given these programs are small and unlikely to make a dent in enrollments in a large system like Cal State. She believes universities’ pushback on these kinds of programs must be less about competition for enrollment and funding and “more philosophical.”

“I think it has more to do with a belief in the system the way it is now—that universities give baccalaureates, community colleges give associate degrees,” she said. “That’s the way the system was designed and the way people have learned and believe it should be, not recognizing the impact of that is really quite troubling for students who are marginalized in baccalaureate education. The status quo will continue to disadvantage students we’ve historically disadvantaged in higher education.”

Interpreting the Law

Fueling much of the tensions is a resolution passed by the California State University Academic Senate in November. The resolution called for an amendment to the law that says community colleges can’t proceed with baccalaureate programs that universities object to “unless or until the objecting segment’s concerns have been addressed to the satisfaction of the objecting segment.”

Steffel said the goal of the resolution is to clarify who decides whether a program is duplicative.

“The criteria of how the programs get approved or not approved right now is sort of ambiguous, and I think it’s creating … unnecessary conflict,” she said.

Community college system leaders see the move as a flagrant overstep.

Aisha Lowe, vice chancellor of student learning, experience and impact at the California Community Colleges system, said while state lawmakers were crafting Assembly Bill 927, “our office was very clear, our chancellor was very clear, that we cannot support anything that gives another segment veto rights over our curriculum.”

As she understands it, the law leaves some “room for interpretation,” but “the authority of approval of these programs rest with the chancellor and Board of Governors.” She believes community college leaders are required to listen to and document university concerns, but these systems don’t get the final say.

Alison Wrynn, associate vice chancellor of academic programs, innovations and faculty development for the Cal State system, said her read of the law is that “it’s pretty clear there has to be a written agreement between the community colleges and the objecting systems.” But unlike other states, California doesn’t have a higher education coordinating board to arbitrate the issue, so the systems are left to figure out these disagreements themselves, she noted.

She described the asks coming from Cal State faculty members as “really minor.” The system reached out to provosts and the Cal State Academic Senate to determine if there were any objections to the proposed programs from scholars, which took time. She said faculty members ultimately concluded that the program proposed by Feather River College is too similar to some of their own, but they’re OK with the other programs so long as they agree to stick to content that doesn’t overlap with Cal State programs and have names that indicate how they differ.

“We’re not telling them, ‘You can’t offer these degree programs,’” she said. “The only reason we’re asking for some of these changes is we want to make sure our students aren’t confused. That way students have a choice.”

Frustrations Mount

Leaders of the community colleges involved don’t believe their proposed programs risk duplicating Cal State offerings, and they’ve grown frustrated with the back-and-forth.

Kevin Trutna, president of Feather River College, located in the Sierra Nevada area, said his community badly needs an ecosystem restoration and fire management program after multiple mega fires have ravaged the region in recent years, including last year’s Dixie Fire. The program would train students to help prevent future wildfires—by logging, setting intentional fires and other methods—and to restore disappearing water sources.

“We’re sitting at the epicenter of the largest destructive fires in United States history, and they’re all around our county and centered around where we live,” he said.

The proposed program has undergone three different rounds of objections from Cal State campuses since April. Seven initial objections from Cal State campuses have since dwindled to two, one from California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, which is currently admitting students for the launch of a similar program in fall 2023, and one from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, which has a program that teaches fire suppression, among other things.

“In my opinion, it’s a turf-war battle,” Trutna said. “We believe there is enough fire restoration to go around for hundreds of universities and thousands of graduates.”

Ricky Shabazz, president of San Diego City College, similarly argued that there are several thousand cybersecurity job openings in San Diego every year, “which means even if all the students at CSU and UC in San Diego wanted to go into cyber, there still would be unmet jobs.” He also believes his college isn’t drawing from the same pool as Cal State campuses.

“Understand that my students will never go to” Cal Poly Humboldt, he said. “My students are place-bound … Folks are not likely to move, because they’re working adults—they have children, they have families.”

Presidents of the affected campuses also see a certain irony in the conflict at hand, given that Cal State leaders have fought for their own expansion into offering doctoral degree programs, traditionally outside their scope. The 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education reserves doctoral programs for UC campuses, but over the last two decades, the Cal State system has successfully lobbied for legislation allowing them to offer various independent doctoral programs, including in education, physical therapy, nursing practice, audiology and occupational therapy.

Steffel said the situations aren’t parallel, because Cal State awards applied doctoral degrees that UC campuses aren’t interested in, as opposed to research-based Ph.D.s.

Sokenu, of Moorpark College, said the Master Plan, which rigidly defines the roles of community colleges, Cal State and UC campuses, is “outdated.”

The plan was created “with the understanding that the UCs would be the premier institutions, and that they would get the very best students and everyone else would have to scramble,” he said. “It created this pecking order that is not equitable, that is not egalitarian.”

While the systems are currently at an impasse, the long-term goal is to reach a clear definition of program duplication, agreed upon by leaders of all of the college and university systems in the state, to make the review process for these programs smoother in the future and allow them to proliferate with greater ease, said Lowe.

“What our message has been and will continue to be is there are more than enough Californians in our state who are desperate for jobs, who are desperate for real careers that pay them a living wage to support their families,” she said. “There are more than enough students for us to serve, along with, and in partnership with, CSU and UC. There’s no competition here.”

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