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Students walk between classes at Moorpark College in California.

Students walk between classes at Moorpark College in California, one of the colleges seeking to offer a new baccalaureate degree program.

Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Five baccalaureate degree programs proposed by institutions in the California Community College system remain in limbo as leaders of the state community college and California State University systems hash out whether those programs are duplicative.

Cal State leaders contend the programs could encroach on their offerings. Community college leaders argue their programs serve a different subset of students and that there are plenty of prospective students to fill programs old and new.

Cal State institutions originally objected to seven programs, but two were allowed to proceed Friday after they were determined to not be duplicative. The five remaining community college programs waylaid by objections from the Cal State system include programs in stem cell and gene technologies at Pasadena City College, applied cybersecurity and network operations at Moorpark College, performance and production of electronic popular music at Rio Hondo College, and cloud computing at Santa Monica College. They are among 14 new programs proposed this year. The other seven programs, including dental hygiene at Cerritos College and Fresno City College and respiratory therapy at Los Angeles Valley College, made it through the review process and were approved by the chancellor’s office to move forward in May.

Brent Foster, assistant vice chancellor and state university dean of academic programs for the CSU system, said these remaining programs require further analysis. He noted that the program proposed by Moorpark raised duplication concerns at 13 of the 23 campuses in the system.

“We’re both big systems in the state of California,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be good stewards of resources, good stewards of the budgets, the dollar bills that come out to each of our systems.”

A review process for these programs exists because it was important to state lawmakers that “we wouldn’t saturate an area with too many of the same types of degrees.”

Aisha Lowe, executive vice chair for the community college system’s Equitable Student Learning, Experience and Impact Office, believes community college baccalaureate programs are critical to meeting the goal set by Governor Gavin Newsom that 70 percent of working adults in California hold a certificate or degree by 2030.

“There is really no way to realistically meet that goal without the work of the community colleges, including community college baccalaureate degrees,” she said. “Our perspective is with millions of students … in the state with some college, no degree, we know that we need to deliver programs that are local and flexible in order to meet the needs of working adults who are trying to re-engage with education and continue their educational pathway.”

Lowe said system leaders believe “that we can work in partnership to create programs that serve different populations and that there really are more than enough students for all segments to serve.”

She noted that the three public higher education systems in the state, including the University of California system, are now working together to improve the community college baccalaureate degree proposal process. A work group created by the Intersegmental Committee of the Academic Senates, a group of faculty members across systems, has been tasked with figuring out what elements of programs should be compared to determine whether they’re duplicative. Lowe said the goal is to have a new written guide in place by the end of this fall so program proposals can move forward more quickly in the future. Meanwhile, the five contested program proposals await further review.

“What happens next is a little bit up in the air,” she said of the programs. “We’re in rounds of conversations with our CSU colleagues around establishing a set of policies and procedures for how we will navigate this process.”

Those conversations have been “positive,” Lowe said. They’ve included discussions about how to expedite the approval of community college baccalaureate programs already offered at other two-year colleges and how to incentivize more collaboration between the higher ed systems.

Foster agreed that collective efforts to reform the process have been fruitful. Last Friday, the CSU system came out with a list of degree titles they determined unlikely to be duplicative and potentially ripe opportunities for community college baccalaureate programs. CSU also produced a guide this summer to help community college leaders search what programs already exist on CSU campuses, and the UC System has a similar guide available.

He added that leaders of the two systems are exploring ways to create on-ramps from community college baccalaureate degrees to relevant master’s degree programs on CSU campuses as well. They’re also considering using technology to streamline the review process and having a neutral third-party possibly conduct duplication reviews at times when the systems reach an impasse.

“The problem has been that we have yet to fully define some of the variables for evidence of duplication,” Foster said. “It’s not a quantitative process. It’s more qualitative … So, we’re working to try to iron those things out so that we’re all on the same page moving forward.”

An Ongoing Challenge

Community college baccalaureate degrees have been a source of strain between the systems since Newsom signed Assembly Bill 927 into law in 2021, making permanent 15 pilot baccalaureate programs at community colleges and allowing other community colleges to develop programs of their own. The law permits the community college system to offer up to 30 new bachelor’s degree programs per year, provided representatives of the state’s university systems determine through a review process that the programs meet different workforce needs than the programs university system institutions already provide. Once that process has occurred, the community college system chancellor’s office gives final approval for the program to be offered.

During the last application cycle, the university systems also contested multiple proposals, though all but one eventually made it through the review process. An applied fire management program at Feather River College was approved by the chancellor’s office, despite outstanding objections from the Cal State system, CalMatters reported. The conflict led California state assemblymember Mike Fong, who chairs the Assembly’s higher education committee, and state senator Josh Newman, who chairs the Senate education committee, to write a letter in April to community college system leaders seeking to pause this year’s baccalaureate program application cycle.

“This pause will allow an intersegmental work group to convene in order to discuss a resolution process for disputes and further refine the duplication consultation process, and to better define program duplication,” the letter reads. “It is also in the spirit of cooperation that we express our expectation that when there are concerns about duplication, we expect that the final approved bachelor’s program will not duplicate a CSU or UC degree regardless of location, and as called for in the law, that there will be a written agreement to that effect signed by the impacted systems.”

System leaders, however, decided to proceed, arguing in a response letter that community college districts had already “dedicated substantial time and effort” to their proposals, which need to be processed on “strict timelines” according to the law. However, the letter also noted that a group of faculty across systems started meeting in April to devise a “dispute resolution process.”

Angela Kersenbrock, president of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, said she’s surprised community college baccalaureate degrees have faced so much pushback in California, given the size and popularity of California’s public university systems and the state’s reputation for progressive politics.

Community college baccalaureate degrees are intended to serve “people who, for one reason or another, are not finding themselves at the university … students who for whatever reason have been historically excluded from the opportunity for higher education,” she said. Some of these students are “place-bound” and rooted where they live because of their families or jobs and can’t commute or move to another part of the state to attend another institution. Others can’t afford the higher costs of a four-year degree at a university or prefer a local option with small class sizes.

“The universities in California just have so many students. They’re so large,” she said. “So, what is the fear here?”

Twenty-three states currently allow community colleges to offer four-year degree programs. There are at least 600 of these degrees offered at nearly 180 community colleges across the country, Kersenbrock said. In other states, including Michigan and Florida, community college baccalaureate degrees have stoked similar fears about competition from public university system leaders, though squabbles in California seem especially fraught.

Kersenbrock believes part of the problem in California is that Assembly Bill 927 doesn’t allow duplication of public university programs, whereas in Florida, community colleges can offer the same four-year degree programs as universities so long as they can demonstrate that there remains unmet need in the labor market for those fields.

Lowe said, “The public perception is there’s a battle,” but community college, CSU and UC system leaders are collectively trying to make the process better.

“We definitely are, I would say, more so working collaboratively and coming up with solutions together,” she said.

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