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Exterior view of the College of Western Idaho's campus

The Idaho State Board of Education recently approved the College of Western Idaho’s proposal to offer a bachelor of applied science in business administration.

Zricketts/Wikimedia Commons

About half of all U.S. states now allow at least some of their community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees. But proposals to expand the number of those programs aren’t without controversy, given that leaders of two-year institutions and their four-year peers tend to view the need for such programs very differently.

That tension was on display in Idaho last month. Although the Idaho State Board of Education approved the College of Western Idaho’s proposal to offer a bachelor of applied science in business administration, the state’s four-year colleges opposed the plan, in part, because they said it would duplicate existing programs at their institutions.

“Community colleges offering four-year degrees weakens the systemness of public higher education in Idaho,” Boise State University wrote in a letter to the board. “Indeed, it could hurt effective and efficient postsecondary education in Idaho, cannibalizing limited resources available to postsecondary education and duplicating degree offerings in the same region.”

In approving the degree, along with two other bachelor’s programs at the College of Eastern Idaho, the state board largely embraced the view of advocates for community college bachelor’s degrees that creating such programs expands educational opportunities for populations that four-year colleges have historically struggled to reach, especially working adults, low-income learners and students of color.

“That’s who ends up going into these bachelor’s programs,” said Angela Kersenbrock, president of the Community College Baccalaureate Association. “We’re diversifying the pool and demographics of who has a baccalaureate degree.”

Community Colleges and Bachelor’s Degrees

In the late 1990s, Florida had one of the lowest baccalaureate degree–attainment rates in the country. To change that, it pioneered the offering of baccalaureate degrees at two-year colleges and sparked a trend that’s since taken hold in nearly half the country. The plan worked: in 2022, 34 percent of Floridians had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 20 percent in 1999, according to American Community Survey data.

Now, community colleges offer about 700 programs across 24 states (Idaho became of them in 2017), according to data from Kersenbrock’s association. The most popular offerings include business, nursing, education and computer and information sciences and support services.

This trend has largely been driven by a desire to spur economic development and advancement by creating more skilled workers in those communities, according to Kersenbrock.

For that reason, she said, four-year colleges’ concern about duplication of degree programs is the “wrong argument.” Instead, the question of whether a bachelor’s degree program at a community college is warranted should come down to market demand in a particular field. “Duplication is not a measuring stick we should be using,” Kersenbrock said. “It’s the labor gap.”

Labor Market Shortage

Addressing the skilled labor shortage in Idaho, where 30.7 percent of residents over the age of 25 hold bachelor’s degrees, is one of the primary reasons CWI proposed its new applied business degree. According to data supplied by the college, sales manager positions are expected to grow by 28 percent over the next decade and account manager positions are projected to grow by 9 percent.

“We’re creating an opportunity for residents of this valley to take advantage of high-demand need for skilled workforce to fuel our economy where they may be currently not the right student profile for some of their alternatives,” said Gordon Jones, president of Western Idaho. Numerous local business leaders told the board as much in letters of support.

Boise State University, less than 20 miles from CWI’s main campus in Nampa, had 3,707 students in its bachelor’s of business administration program in fall 2021. But Jones said the community college’s new degree (there is no other bachelor’s of applied business degree currently available in Idaho) differs from traditional business programs offered at the state’s universities.

It “involves a career and technical education curriculum embedded in it that I believe is unique and distinctive and a hallmark of how community colleges both teach and what they’re known for,” Jones told the board. “This degree proposal is targeting the employment and workforce demands for our community.”

The degree, he added, is also designed to serve a population of students different from those attending a residential university. “An adult who is 28 with two kids doesn’t move into the freshman dorm at Boise State to go live on the campus,” Jones said. “We do classes that start every eight weeks; we do classes that start in the evenings. None of these things are as present in a residential-based university environment.”

In a letter to the board opposing Western Idaho’s proposed applied business degree, Boise State noted that it already offers an online bachelor of business administration in management to serve nontraditional students: “This is clearly a duplication of a degree offering within the state and by definition is competitive with the 4-year institutions in the state.”

CWI, however, insists the differences between the institutions’ student bodies matter.

The majority of CWI’s students take classes part-time, many work and a third of them are over the age of 24; 53 percent of CWI students receive a Pell Grant, financial aid for low-income students, compared to 23 percent of Boise State students, according to U.S. Education Department data. Moreover, the sticker price for in-state tuition and fees at Boise State is $4,391 a semester for 11 to 16 credits. An in-district student at Western Idaho can expect to pay a total of $8,340 for 60 credit hours.

“This is not at all an attempt to spawn or birth a four-year university,” Jones said. “This is absolutely a community college mind-set where we’re meeting workforce needs and taking advantage of this model of how community colleges can come alongside and create this access for equal opportunity.”

‘Scarcity Mind-Set’ ?

Although increased competition for an ever-shrinking national pool of potential students is a common refrain from university leaders who oppose baccalaureate programs at community colleges, the creation of community college bachelor’s degree programs doesn’t result in a loss of enrollment at nearby public universities with similar programs, according to a 2020 paper published in the American Educational Research Journal. Instead, for-profit universities are the types of institutions most likely to see a decrease in the number of students seeking bachelor’s degrees as a result of community colleges offering them.

Western Idaho estimated it would cost the college about $500,000 from its reserves to start the program, which it hopes to launch this fall, pending approval from its accreditor. The college projects the program will enroll 125 students by the 2027 fiscal year.

Jones believes the pushback to the baccalaureate programs comes from a “scarcity mind-set” on the part of the public universities. “This is a story of addition when you think about the communities we serve. I think that scarcity mind-set leads to a protectionist viewpoint.”

While a looming enrollment cliff has stoked anxieties at colleges nationally, Idaho’s state education board reported a 4 percent rise in its total number of college students over the past four years. Community colleges in Idaho have outpaced their four-year counterparts in enrollment in recent years, growing by 6 percent from 2019 to 2023 compared to 1 percent for the state’s universities.

Kevin Satterlee, who retired on Dec. 31 as president of Idaho State University, which is 250 miles from the College of Western Idaho, said he was concerned not about competition but about the new program’s quality. “Business is not an applied science,” he said. “Business is a traditional academic study area, and saying we should downgrade that as an academic discipline just to justify a community college offering it is not in the students’ best interest.”

But Justin Ortagus, director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida, said that criticism ignores the new program’s focus on local labor market demand.

He offered the example of graduates of his university’s accounting programs leaving Gainesville to work in larger nearby cities, resulting in a shortage of accountants in town. “Our local community college offered a bachelor’s in accounting, and that demand was met and did its job in addressing that local workforce shortage.”

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