Ways to scale up community college baccalaureates

By Debra D. Bragg

In many parts of the country, the idea of community colleges awarding a bachelor’s degree is not just novel, it’s unthinkable. Since their beginning, two-year colleges have provided an “open door” to higher education with one big exception: Community colleges cannot award bachelor’s degrees.

The problem is many community college students aspire to get a baccalaureate but never do. Truth be told, transfer is a challenging journey that requires students to start over at a new school after finding their place and succeeding in their chosen program of study. Adding more stress, universities charge double or triple more for tuition than community colleges. Given these challenges, is it any wonder more community colleges are considering offering bachelor’s degrees?

National results inform CCB scale-up

New research from the Community College Baccalaureate Association (CCBA) and Bragg & Associates, Inc. documents the growth of CCB degrees and provides new insights into CCB degrees nationwide. These data help to set the stage for a new phase of CCB scale-up, which means growing the scope and potential impact of bachelor’s degrees for students underserved by the current higher education system. While offering a pathway for more students to secure the baccalaureate, CCB degrees also help foster inclusive communities while strengthening regional economies.

For any innovation to scale up, data are needed to guide program development, optimize resources and take action (Century, 2007). Researchers Christina and Nicholson-Goodman (2005) note the importance of thinking of scaling up as having four critical dimensions:

  • Spread by growing understanding of the innovation and the know-how to implement it.
  • Depth by ensuring positive impact with tangible evidence of outcomes and benefits.
  • Sustainability by supporting longevity after the excitement of start-up fades and the going gets tougher.
  • Shift in ownership by normalizing the innovation to be routine and integral to the system.

Applying these dimensions to CCB degrees, we’re talking about spreading research on what CCB degrees are and how to implement more, providing evidence of where these degrees are happening and the impact they have on students and their communities, providing adequate resources and support to ensure CCB degrees last over time, and rooting CCBs so deeply in higher education systems that they are no longer met with consternation or worse: outright contempt.

Takeaways to scale up

Reviewing major findings from our national research on CCB degrees, I offer seven takeaways to help readers understand how these degrees may be able to scale up in the United States.

  1. Understand the current state of CCB degrees in the United States.

It’s impossible to know if an innovation will scale up if we don’t know where it stands now. We need a baseline to measure growth. Of the 24 states conferring at least one CCB degree today, eight states approve the majority of community colleges to confer CCB degrees. Florida has scaled up CCBs the most, with all 28 colleges conferring at least one degree. Washington is just one short of all 34 community and technical colleges conferring a CCB.

Added to these, many community colleges in California and Texas confer bachelor’s degrees, showing the potential to surpass Florida and Washington soon because of the sheer size of their community college systems (116 community colleges in California, and more than 60 community colleges in Texas). Today, about one-third of the community colleges in each of these states are approved to offer CCB degrees, with an announcement of more CCB-degree approvals coming soon in California.

  1. Know how state laws impact the scale-up of CCB degrees.

Many factors influence the scale-up of CCB degrees within states, with the language included in state laws being one of the most important. Enabling legislation helps to grow new programs, while restrictive language constrains them. For example, Massachusetts’ law authorizes just one community college, Quincy College, an independent public community college, to confer bachelor’s degrees while no other public community colleges can award them. In South Carolina, state law restricts CCB degrees to advanced manufacturing programs. While all technical colleges can adopt, if they make a good case, CCB degrees cannot grow into other industry sectors that may need baccalaureate-prepared employees.

All this is to say that understanding how state laws influence CCB programs is extremely important to scaling up more CCB degrees across the country.

  1. Ensure CCB degrees expand access to baccalaureate attainment.

As noted earlier, state and institutional leaders of higher education tend to view CCB degrees very differently. Naysayers argue CCB degrees duplicate university programs and destabilize enrollments, defending the status-quo structure of college degree conferral, while community college leaders point to the need to grow bachelor’s degrees to strengthen regional economies. They also point to the need to better serve racially minoritized and under-resourced families who are jeopardized most acutely by current transfer regimes.

Luckily, we see much less of this angst in states that have conferred CCB degrees for a long time. In states like Florida, Nevada and Washington, where CCB conferral is commonplace, higher education leaders understand why community colleges offer bachelor’s pathways. They don’t always agree that every CCB application should be approved, but they also don’t fight the mere idea that community colleges should be able to confer baccalaureates.

There are four more ways – check them out in the full CC Daily article.

Debra D. Bragg

is president of Bragg & Associates, Inc. and endowed professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.