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.