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California community colleges could begin offering bachelor’s degree programs in nursing under a new pilot program proposed in a recent state Senate bill.
Community college leaders are celebrating the bill as a way to expand access to more affordable bachelor of science in nursing (B.S.N.) programs and fill critical nursing shortages in the state. California State University officials, however, have expressed concerns that new programs will cause undue competition.
Senate Bill 895, authored by state senator Richard D. Roth, would allow the chancellor of the community college system to choose up to 15 community college districts that already provide nursing associate degrees to offer B.S.N. programs. These new programs would be limited in size at up to a quarter of colleges’ nursing associate degree enrollments or 35 students, whichever is greater.
“The healthcare staffing crisis is a major area of need for California’s workforce and a priority for the California Community Colleges,” Sonya Christian, chancellor of the California Community College system, said in a celebratory press release from the Community College League of California. “We look forward to collaborating with the Governor and Legislature, our labor and industry partners, educators, and our colleges on this critical issue.”
Wolde-Ab Isaac, chancellor of the Riverside Community College District, said it would be easy for districts like his that already have robust nursing associate degree programs to develop bachelor’s programs. Meanwhile, hospitals and other health-care employers increasingly prefer to hire nurses with bachelor’s degrees.
He said because community college tuition is so much lower than universities’, these programs would encourage “first-generation, low-income students to venture into these high-skilled, high-demand and high-paid jobs by opening the door to nursing without them having to incur heavy debt.”
Supporters of the bill are steeling themselves for a less than enthusiastic reaction from Cal State system administrators and faculty members, who have historically pushed back against the expansion of community college baccalaureate degrees. Isaac noted that the California Master Plan, which dictates the missions of the different public higher ed systems and sharply delineates their roles and the kinds of degrees they should offer, is outdated and doesn’t always serve the best interests of students.
“We tend to be very territorial as to what belongs to us,” he said of the systems.
Hazel Kelly, a CSU spokesperson, said in an email that the system has taken no formal position on the bill at this point. But “in general, the CSU believes that we can increase the number of nursing students in our state faster by working with our community colleges, rather than duplicating efforts and competing for limited resources, including clinical placements and qualified faculty,” she said.
A Fraught History
The two systems have been locked in an ongoing battle over two-year institutions offering four-year programs for a decade. Community colleges began providing these programs as part of a pilot in 2014, which allowed the creation of 15 baccalaureate programs at colleges in the system. Those programs had to address unmet workforce needs in the state and couldn’t duplicate offerings at Cal State or University of California campuses. Nursing was excluded from the initial pilot because it was considered duplicative.
Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law in 2021 that made the pilot programs permanent and allowed community colleges to propose new baccalaureate programs. Under the law, community college administrators can propose new baccalaureate degrees to their system chancellor’s office during two annual cycles. Fifteen programs per cycle are selected for review by the chancellor’s office, the Cal State and University of California systems, and the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities to ensure they don’t duplicate existing programs at other institutions.
These review processes have been contentious, with Cal State system leaders often deeming proposed programs too similar to their own. For example, a handful of proposals were waylaid by Cal State objections last year. There were also multiple contested proposals in a 2022 review cycle, though all but one eventually made it through the process. That program, an applied fire management degree at Feather River College, was approved by the community colleges’ chancellor’s office despite the Cal State system’s outstanding objections.
The Path Forward
Isaac said he expects Cal State system leaders to oppose Senate Bill 895 due to concerns about competition, but he believes such opposition is misguided. He noted that private higher ed institutions train almost three-quarters of nurses with B.S.N. degrees in the state, and so both public systems should be competing with privates instead of each other.
“What we have done by competing, or at least being very territorial, is we are unable to meet the need” when students would benefit from more affordable options than the B.S.N. programs they’re mostly attending at private institutions, he said.
Alex Graves, vice president for government relations at the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, which represents nonprofit private colleges, said the association is “reviewing the proposal among several other bills that seek to address nursing workforce shortages.”
“As a leading producer of nursing professionals in the state, we look forward to engaging with the senator and stakeholders on how to meet those needs,” he said in an email to Inside Higher Ed.
Isaac’s district currently has a partnership with Cal State Fullerton and Cal State San Bernardino that allows students to concurrently enroll in the nursing associate degree program at his community college, Riverside, and B.S.N. programs at the Cal States. He believes if his district could offer B.S.N. degrees, there would be a greater pool of graduates to go on to nursing master’s and doctoral programs at the local Cal States who could become future nursing faculty members, also in high demand in the state.
“I think that by having us complement the production of bachelor’s degrees, it would enable Cal State partners to expand some of their programs to higher levels of qualifications,” he said.
Kelly noted that the Cal State system enrolls “more than 7,600 nursing students each year and graduates more than 3,500 each year.” She also highlighted “a long and successful track record of working with our local community colleges’ nursing programs” through concurrent enrollment programs and said new programs come with additional challenges.
B.S.N. programs across the state struggle with limited availability of clinical placements and qualified nursing professors, so “adding new nursing programs does not resolve the challenges. In fact, new programs will be limited by them as well,” she said.
Lee Lambert, chancellor of the Foothill–De Anza Community College District, said in the press release that California expects a shortage of more than 44,000 registered nurses by 2030, while the state’s bachelor’s degree programs only have room for about a quarter of qualified applicants.
Francisco C. Rodriguez, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District, said his support for the bill is also about addressing “growing health disparities,” particularly in underserved and low-income areas, and diversifying the nursing workforce.
He noted that his district has seven nursing schools that together serve 1,259 students. Of those students, 86 percent are students of color.
“Our students come in with linguistic, cultural, historical perspectives and capabilities that are value added to the health-care profession,” he said. “They’re already here, working here, wanting to continue their education here, wanting to contribute here to this place … It’s not just legislation—it’s equity at work.”