Piloting the Baccalaureate Program in California

By Bob Woods

How a two-year college bakes a four-year degree into its allied health program.

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a two-part series on community colleges and baccalaureate programs. Read the first article here.

“It’s a very large cake batter with a lot of ingredients.” That’s how Pamela Luster, president of San Diego Mesa College, describes the multilayered process of developing the bachelor’s degree program in Health Information Technology (HIT) that the school will begin offering this fall. Mesa College is one of 12 schools in California’s community college system, out of 112, chosen to participate in the Baccalaureate Degree Pilot Program that the state’s legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown approved last September. (For more details on this and other baccalaureate programs now offered in 22 states, see part one of this series.)

Nearly a year ago, while Senate Bill 805 was being debated inside the state’s legislative chambers, in Sacramento, the prep work began at Mesa College, with multiple cooks in the kitchen. Working with Luster were Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District; Margie Fritch, dean of Mesa College’s School of Health Sciences and Public Service; Connie Renda, assistant professor and program director of Mesa’s HIT program; and several faculty members from the department of HIT. The college’s health information advisory board, composed of leaders from the local health care industry, who have or will hire the program’s graduates, was also represented.

“We started the process last spring to decide what one program we would offer,” Luster says, explaining that four departments had originally submitted requests. “Because we already had a clear pathway with our allied health programs’ two-year HIT degree, we chose that over the others.”

A primary ingredient was the curriculum. The team had to consider what upper-level general education courses to offer, keeping in mind the bill’s mandate not to duplicate any degree program offered at a California State or a University of California institution. For instance, a student in the business program at San Diego State University might take a business ethics course in his or her junior or senior year. “What they’ll take in our program is health care ethics specifically tied to the field,” Luster says. “That, and all our junior- and senior-level courses, will be brand-new.”

“Even though these are workforce-focused degrees, we want to build in all the things we believe are important.”

Mesa College’s faculty committee, as well as the district’s counterpart and its board of trustees, must approve the entire curriculum to ensure it complies with state mandates and the system’s accreditors. Finally, the curriculum will be submitted to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges for approval.

“This was no slam dunk,” Luster says of the process. “The faculty committees spent time reviewing every piece of curriculum, and the members asked great questions about supporting this level of learning. Even though these are workforce-focused degrees, we want to build in all the things we believe are important, in terms of students’ ability to think critically and to understand the ethics of what they’re doing. Our faculty has been highly engaged in this, and they take the assurance of their degrees very seriously,” she says, adding that several full- and part-time faculty members will be hired to teach the classes.

Eventually, the HIT baccalaureate program will feature hybridized courses combining on-campus and online components, Luster says. But the cohort of 32 freshmen who will inaugurate the program this fall will be classroom-only. “We thought it was important to have their faces right in front of us,” she states. “We are looking at nontraditional scheduling, because we know most of the folks in this program are going to want to work while they do it.”

Although that initial cohort will be on a four-year pathway, Mesa College is still devising a policy for the new baccalaureate students to be included in the school’s admission system. “We’ll work with the state chancellor’s office to look at our Title V educational code so that students can declare for both the two-year and the four-year HIT program,” Luster says. The pilot program stipulates that all cohorts must graduate by 2023.

The tuition for California’s Baccalaureate Degree Pilot Program is prescribed by the state. For example, students enrolled in Mesa College’s HIT bachelor’s program will be required to complete a minimum of 120 semester hours. Sixty units of lower-division coursework will be at the community college rate of $46 a unit. The 60 upper-division units will cost an additional $130 per unit for the last two years of the program. At Mesa, the tuition increase for the upper-division courses will help pay for additional faculty, advisers, financial aid staff and various incidentals, Luster says.

In total, the estimated cost of Mesa’s four-year degree, not including books or other costs, is $10,560. Loma Linda University, a private institution east of Los Angeles, is the only college in California currently offering a similar HIT baccalaureate degree, charging approximately $30,000 per year for tuition alone.

There is a sense of pride and anticipation at Mesa College as the months of preparation and planning will soon come to fruition. “More traditional faculty might have wondered about what we’re doing, but once we communicated the power of this bachelor’s degree, they were excited,” Luster says. “We feel a tremendous obligation to make this work. We don’t want to get it wrong. But I feel so strongly about our program, that the foundational ingredients are there. Everything we need is in our kitchen, ready to go into this bowl. We’re feeling a tremendous sense of confidence, pride and accountability in the degree that we’re going to offer.”

Bob Woods

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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