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Students in cap and gown

A new report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA calls for an expansion of California community college baccalaureate programs.

San Diego Community College District

Community college baccalaureate programs in California can help more Black and Latino students earn bachelor’s degrees in a state that badly needs a more educated workforce, according to a new report.

The Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, a research effort examining civil rights and equal opportunity issues affecting racial and ethnic groups, today released the report calling for a “strategic” expansion of baccalaureate programs at community colleges. The researchers who produced the report say the expansion should have a focus on racial equity and labor market needs.

Hispanics make up 38.1 percent of all state residents 25 and older, but among all state residents with a bachelor’s degree, only about 11.5 percent are Hispanic, according to the report. Black residents make up a much smaller share of the state population but have a similar degree gap. Student parents, first-generation college students and adult learners are also among those who might benefit from “accessible and affordable pathways for bachelor’s degrees for place-bound students,” the report states.

State legislation in 2021 authorized the expansion of community college baccalaureate programs, establishing that proposed new programs undergo a review that involves the California State University and the University of California systems. Some recent expansion efforts have met with pushback from CSU faculty members. A CSU faculty leader told Inside Higher Ed he has concerns about using state dollars to bolster baccalaureate programs that might exist elsewhere.

But duplication shouldn’t be an issue, according to the authors of the report.

As an example of “strategic” expansion, they say in the report, “Community colleges might consider offering degrees in fields where there is a clear shortage of bachelor’s degree–educated workers, even if these fields overlap with existing four-year programs (e.g., if local demand for registered nurses outpaces the production of bachelor’s degrees in nursing at the nearest California State University).”

There are currently no community college baccalaureate programs in nursing in the state.

The report says California’s “leading role in higher education has dwindled over time” and that the state’s “college degree production is not keeping pace with employer demand.”

Notable differences exist between students in community college baccalaureate programs compared to state university programs, according to the researchers.

The report cites previous research findings that community college students as more likely to be working adults with families and “place-bound” to the area where they live, and it asserts that in states such as Florida—where community college baccalaureate programs are more common—allowing “program overlap between the community college and state university system” results in “little competition for students between sectors.”

Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, an education professor at UCLA and co-author of the report, said that when it comes to hearing points raised by CSU faculty members, “I think that there’s a space to listen and document concerns. But when it comes to approving these programs, I think there has to be use of evidence. Like I said, we have data and evidence that points to the fact that we’re not serving the same students. That’s a very important point that we wanted to make in this report.”

The report describes how Florida community colleges are part of the Florida College System, while public universities are part of the State University System, and approximately 60 percent of the Florida College System bachelor’s programs were also offered by the State University System, according to 2015 data, “yet the SUS has not experienced any notable enrollment declines in these areas.”

Florida and Washington are two states that have authorized community college baccalaureate programs for the longest amount of time, the report states, so data from those states are often studied given the history and size of the programs.

The report includes some data on students in existing California community college baccalaureate programs but notes that “the existing data infrastructure consists of parallel data systems that can differ in how they count/report students and how they measure progress and outcomes.” The authors call for improved data collection.

The report’s authors also note an equity gap between the number of Latino students attending community college and the number transferring to four-year institutions. Among community college students, “while Latina/o/x students represent 51 percent of all students who declared a degree/transfer goal, they represent 35 percent among those who successfully transfer within four years.”

Thomas Norman, a professor of management at California State University, Dominguez Hills, and vice chair of CSU’s Academic Senate, has questions about the costs associated with adding baccalaureate programs at community colleges.

“Oftentimes, people look at the amounts students pay. But that’s not really the cost that we should be looking at from the state perspective,” Norman said, describing concerns about how state dollars might be needed to pay for costs associated with creating programs similar to those already at universities.

He also emphasized California State University system’s commitment to equity, which he said includes addressing the needs of nontraditional students.

Daisy Gonzales, interim chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, praised the report’s recommendations.

“This UCLA report shows us what the legislature and our Board of Governors saw in the potential to expand California Community College bachelor’s degree program with the passage of AB 927,” she said in a statement, referring to the 2021 law that allows up to 30 additional community colleges to add baccalaureate programs each academic year. “By expanding community college bachelor’s degree programs, we can close equity gaps, address workforce demands and lead social mobility at scale for Californians.”

While the affordability of community college baccalaureate programs makes them attractive to students, Rios-Aguilar said students also have existing obligations that prevent them from being able to commute to four-year colleges that may be farther away from their homes.

“I think the value proposition from these programs is that you can stay local. In some cases, students are attending part-time so they can continue working,” Rios-Aguilar said.

Ivy Love, a senior policy analyst with New America, a liberal Washington think tank, said her research has found that Florida residents see a big boost in earnings if they complete a community college baccalaureate program. Considering all areas of study, those with a baccalaureate degree earned about $10,000 more than those with just an associate degree, Love said. Her research found “a pretty racially and ethnically diverse group of students who graduate from these programs in Florida,” adding that about half are age 30 or older.

While many more of these programs exist in Florida—the report counted over 150 in Florida compared to 15 in California—Love said those enrolled still make up a small percentage of all community college students in Florida.

Deborah Floyd, a professor of higher education leadership at Florida Atlantic University, said in an email that the “strongest advocates” for expanding community college baccalaureate programs are “often employers within communities,” including, for example, school boards seeking teachers and hospitals or health-care facilities seeking workers.

“Businesses with a need for educated leaders and managers often advocate for these degrees,” Floyd said.

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