Community Colleges Part 2 — A solution to budget cuts?

Everyone knows that public education has taken huge budget cuts in response to the recent state of the economy. As a result, public universities (read: the Cal States and UCs) can no longer accommodate the same huge numbers of students as before, while being forced to raise fees and tuition for existing students. Many students get put on waiting lists for public colleges or simply can’t afford the increased cost of attendance.

Part of the reason many students choose to begin their college education at a two-year local school is to save on costs. Especially for students who are undecided about a field of study and aren’t yet ready to commit to a specific campus for four years, community college is a good choice to begin chipping away at those “general education” classes, such as Freshman Composition, Speech 101, Critical Thinking 101…. You get the picture. And while every college has its own style and level of educating freshmen and sophomores, you can get most of your basic requirements transferred to a four-year school, having spent the first two at a community college.

But what if community colleges offered more than just a two-year degree? Traditionally, community college offers a two-year associate’s degree (AA), which can count toward the first two years of a bachelor’s degree (BA) at a four-year university, assuming that all of the first two years’ worth of credits transfer successfully. However, with public colleges experiencing budget cuts across the nation, some community colleges have begun awarding four-year degrees to allow more students the opportunity to receive a BA.

As of 2009, 17 states have already passed legislation allowing community colleges to grant four-year degrees, most of them in industry fields such as nursing or education. These programs would stretch the traditional two-year community college stay to four, of course, allowing students to complete the degrees required for industry work for a much lower cost than before. These BA-granting community colleges are still few and far between, but more are trying to jump on board.

California, for example, has not yet allowed its community college schools to offer BAs. However, two assemblymen, Jerry Hill and Marty Block–a former San Diego State University (Cal State) dean–have proposed moving the state’s 110 community colleges in that direction, according to the Ventura County Star. Comparing the 32% increase in Cal State tuition that averages between $3,000 and $8,000 per semester with the inexpensive $26-per-unit average at California community colleges, this systemic change may serve many students falling between the cracks of budget crisis.

However, its important to note that some traditional four-year universities are up in arms about allowing community colleges to grant four-year degrees, stating that this kind of move toward community college BAs puts students at risk for receiving “watered down” degrees, a critic stated in the New York Times last year. In response, organizations such as the Community College Baccalaureate Association argue that a BA is a necessary requirement for a good job, and public education should provide students with the realistic opportunity to achieve that. Their motivation seems to be focused on employable majors, like the above-stated nursing and teaching occupations, so it’s doubtful that many community colleges will begin offering bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, political science or poetry. University humanities departments, for example, needn’t worry, in light of the motivations for community colleges to begin offering their own BAs.

While there are many angles to the issue of providing bachelor’s degrees to community college students, I think it’s a positive advancement for public education which allows more students the opportunity to equip themselves with the skills and requirements for starting a career.

Do you know of any community colleges in your area that offer four-year degrees? We’d like to hear about it! Let us know in a comment below.

This article on community colleges is part of a BetterGrads series on two-year colleges. To read last week’s post on my personal experiences with excellent students from these institutions, check out last week’s post: Community College Part 1 — Speech & Debate.