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Fixing the Schools
Community Colleges Offer Bachelor's Degrees

Community colleges aren’t just for two-year degrees anymore: dozens of them all over the country have begun to offer the four-year B.A. Needless to say, it’s a controversial move, as The Hechinger Report says in a story about expanded community college programs in Florida:

Critics and supporters of the trend say alternately that it is helping fill an important social need most universities aren’t, or that it’s an ego-driven, money-wasting cry for prestige and respect from institutions at the low end of the higher-education hierarchy […]

Students are responding with enthusiasm. The number enrolling at former community colleges in Florida alone to get bachelor’s degrees has nearly quadrupled to more than 30,000 in just five years. And there seems to be one principal reason: It’s cheaper and more convenient than attending a four-year university, especially for working parents and part-time students who make up a large proportion of the people who go to community colleges.

Opponents have accused community colleges of offering an inferior product or needlessly duplicating what the state universities already provide. They’re also resented for receiving funds that state universities think belong to them. However, interest in these programs is growing. Michigan and Colorado have passed legislation to allow community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees, but only in certain fields and over fierce opposition. California is currently considering the idea, and its community college B.A. programs could go into effect as early as next year.

The Hechinger Report spoke to Kenneth Walker, founder and former chairman of the Community College Baccalaureate Association:

“Universities aren’t oriented toward workforce-type programs” in fields that increasingly require bachelor’s degrees, he said. “This really is a new need that emerged when the associate degree was no longer adequate to be competitive in the job market. That’s why you’re seeing this tremendous increase.”

We’re of mixed opinion about this trend. On the one hand, we’d cheer for any program that offers students a relatively inexpensive yet solid education. Getting a B.A. at one community college in Florida can cost as little as half as much as getting the degree at the local state university. And while we don’t want to see the liberal arts and sciences B.A. supplanted by vocational education, these community college degrees might be a good option for students who would not have enrolled in such programs in the first place.

However, the motives that Walker attributes to the colleges give pause. It’s possible that community colleges are offering bachelor’s degrees not because their students need the extra years of study, but because the marketplace demands more credentials these days. That’s a bad trend, and the solution to this creeping credentialism is not to make credentials more readily available, but rather to establish a system that values skills learned more than time served. If community colleges are turning into credential mills, much like some universities have, then what little value they had as cheap, short alternatives to the expensive four-year B.A. will be lost.

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  • johngbarker

    ” If community colleges are turning into credential mills..:” If?

    • Andrew Allison

      As if Universities are not.

      • johngbarker

        I agree. It is everywhere a credentials game without much thought about the meaning or real value of the sheepskin.

  • mgoodfel

    Community colleges used to be dirt cheap compared to universities. I’m surprised the college 4-year degree costs even 1/2 of the university degree. Should be more like 1/10. It used to be that community colleges didn’t even have dorms, rec centers, and lots of administration. Has that all changed?

  • Jagneel

    Why not go for PhDs? Who says people with barely masters can produce PhDs .
    To be serious, most faculty in CCs have very soft masters and their mastery of the subject matter is a bit shaky (at least in STEM fields).
    Of course, if want to offer management or marketing degrees, I am all for it. Most of the nonaccounting business degrees are BS any way. So why not CC faculty do the BS (not bachelor of science)) as well.

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  • Jim__L

    For those who think that universities should not be turned into mere “corporate certification” schools, this should be a very positive alternative.

  • free_agent

    I wonder if the community colleges have tenure? Universities tend to be cabals run by the tenured faculty, sometimes with the bulk of the teaching fobbed off onto graduate students and adjunct professors. If the CCs don’t have tenure, then it will be much harder for such a cabal to take control and extract rents.

  • Marcio Ronci

    I believe there is room for a productive collaboration between state universities and community
    colleges as the partnership between the University of Texas at Tyler and
    Houston Community College shows. The innovative partnership allows students to
    earn a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering on the HCC Alief-Hayes campus
    in Houston. The approximate cost of the
    bachelor’s degree when started at HCC (as the ASES) and completed at UT Tyler
    is approximately $19,000, making it one of the most affordable engineering
    degrees anywhere.

    The UT Tyler-HCC partnership is part of a statewide program established in Texas, made
    available at participating community colleges and supported by participating
    universities, including Houston Community College, San Jacinto College, TSTC-Harlingen,
    and South Texas College.

    This innovative partnership could be an important innovation: State universities could specialize
    in research and graduate degrees, while community colleges could offer undergraduate
    degrees at affordable prices.

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