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Three states, three CCB journeys

By Tabitha Whissemore

In 25 states, community colleges can grant bachelor’s degrees. But policies and funding structures vary in each state.

New America on Monday invited higher education leaders from Arizona, Texas and Florida to talk about community college baccalaureate (CCB) degree programs in their states.

Early in the journey

In Arizona, the Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) is still early in its CCB degree journey. The district just received approval from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) to offer baccalaureate degrees.

It makes sense to offer these degrees at the 10 Maricopa colleges, which serve about 175,000 students each year. The district is one of the largest providers of workforce development in the state, according to MCCCD Chancellor Steven Gonzales. When looking at both equity gaps and employee shortages, “we are the greatest opportunity in closing the gap,” he said.

And that was the case that was made to the state legislature, which in 2021 – after about 20 years of attempts – passed legislation permitting community colleges to offer baccalaureate degree programs.

Because MCCCD gets no money from the state, the district reallocated funding to cover the start-up costs. State authorization for the programs isn’t required, but the district did need approval from its local governing board and, of course, its accreditor, HLC.

MCCCD will begin its programs in fall 2023, offering bachelor’s degrees in high-demand areas such as IT, data analytics and programming, public safety administration and education. Student demand will drive what programs succeed and what other programs get launched.

“We will not be able to offer a bachelor’s degree to 10 students,” said Gonzales, who also serves on the American Association of Community Colleges board of directors.

There are limitations in the number of CCB degree programs they can launch: no more than 5% of their programming can comprise CCB degree programs. But that’s not a concern right now, as MCCCD offers close to 700 programs across the district.

For now, faculty are “well-positioned and well-qualified” and ready for the fall, Gonzales said, and the college is about to launch a robust marketing campaign for the new programs.

“When students are sitting in classrooms in nine or 10 months, that’s where our true success will be measured,” Gonzales said.

As for tuition, the district ia allowed to charge up to 150% of in-state tuition rate for bachelor’s degree courses, which is still about a third less than state public university costs.

“The notion of $10,000 to $12,000 bachelor’s degree is realistic,” Gonzales said.

These new programs will not replace the district’s interest in expanding articulation agreements with universities. But the programs do offer a new avenue for students.

From competition to complementary

Twelve of the 50 community colleges in Texas offer CCB degrees.

In 2003, three institutions gained approval to pilot a limited number of CCB degree programs – applied technology, applied science and nursing. It wasn’t until 2017 that the pilot status was removed and other colleges were allowed to offer these programs. There was “tension” at the time and concerns from the four-year institutions about competition, said Ray Martinez, CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. But that’s since changed.

“It’s a move away from competition, to rather it being complementary,” Martinez said. The programs “are truly done with a lot of cooperation. It’s part of the approval process.”

And that approval process is rigorous, he said.

When creating new CCB degree programs, community colleges must prove there’s labor market demand. But they also must notify area institutions to find out if there is opposition. If there is, the institutions must come to an agreement before a program can move forward.

CCB degrees are meeting critical workforce needs in Texas, Martinez said. “There is a place for community colleges to help meet that demand without it being in competition.”

The programs also provide greater access to the baccalaureate at an affordable price. The three colleges that piloted programs have flexibility to charge slightly higher tuition for baccalaureate-level courses. For the other colleges offering CCB degrees, they cannot charge more than they normally charge for an associate degree.

That could change: in 2023, state funding changes are coming to Texas community colleges, which could also change tuition formulas.

Meanwhile, enrollment is steadily increasing in CCB degree programs and the number of programs continues to expand, but there’s “not a fast, big ramp-up,” Martinez said.

“It’s about, yes, greater access, but also the fact that community colleges are very much in tune with needs of local communities,” he said.

Baked in

In the late 1990s, Florida had a critical teacher and healthcare workforce shortage. There was no evidence the 11 state universities could “bulk up” to train more workers without a significant financial investment, explained Carrie Henderson, executive vice chancellor for the Florida College System. So the state turned to its community colleges.

Legislation passed in 2001 allowing Florida community colleges to offer bachelor’s degree programs in these high-need areas. Now, there are about 185 authorized CCB degree programs in Florida. Support for CCB degree programs has changed over time – for a while, there was a moratorium on adding new programs – but current support is high.

At this point, these programs are “baked in,” Henderson said. There’s a rigorous approval process and an annual accountability analysis where a team reviews data on retention, completion and job placement.

“Everything we look at, regardless of who’s in leadership, you want it to withstand scrutiny in the future,” Henderson said.

And though CCB degree programs aren’t new in Florida, there’s still conversation about what could improve, such as the structure of programs to possibly reduce the number of general education courses students must take when they enter the bachelor’s degree program.

Though many Florida community colleges have rebranded as CCB degree programs have expanded, “our institutions have to maintain their missions,” Henderson said.

This article was originally posted in CC Daily.

Tabitha Whissemore

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.