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California Community Colleges To Hand Out First Bachelor’s Degrees Next Year

Mesa College students and administrators celebrate the opening of the school'...

Credit: Mesa College

Above: Mesa College students and administrators celebrate the opening of the school's first bachelor's degree program in this undated photo.

In 2014, the state agreed to conduct an experiment. It would allow a small number of community colleges to offer four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Lawmakers are poised to revisit this experiment in the new year, after the Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended in a report this month that they extend the pilot to collect more data.

Two of the programs are in San Diego County: health information management at Mesa College and biomanufacturing at MiraCosta College. Both are offshoots of existing associate degree programs that often give students a foot in the door to local industry. By adding two years of study, the hope is they’ll also gain career mobility.

“There are positions that you can get with a certificate, with an associate’s degree, and we have been serving those needs. But that’s just to get your foot in the door,” said Mike Fino, MiraCosta’s dean of math and sciences. “It’s pretty clear to everybody that once you’re in there, the higher degree you have, the more that enables you to broaden the scope of your work and extend your career.”

MiraCosta accepted its first 23 students into the program this fall, so there’s little data from which to draw conclusions. But Fino said students and employers alike see the value in the applied degrees, versus the bachelor’s of arts or science universities offer.

“(Companies) will ask you to have a science degree, but those science classes aren’t really developing the knowledge, skills and abilities that are needed on the production side. So they have to spend a lot of time training people,” Fino said. “What we’re trying to do is cut down on that training time so that when they show up at these companies, they’re much more immediately effective than other science (graduates).”

Photo credit: MiraCosta College

MiraCosta College's inaugural class of biomanufacturing juniors is picture in this undated photo.

At Mesa, several students already have job offers upon graduation this spring, said President Pam Luster. Mesa’s bachelor’s program started a year earlier than MiraCosta’s and has already enrolled a second cohort.

Luster said it’s opening new doors for nontraditional students, including single parents and veterans, in part, because the cost is significantly lower than universities at just over $10,000 for four years.

“Unlike CSUs and UCs that are engaged in research and other kinds of things that benefit the greater good, we don’t have to charge the fees it would take to support a research university,” Luster said. “So it’s really great for us to be able to spend the dollars right on the students, getting them through the program.”

The programs are also more flexible for working students, said Fino, who consulted with students and employers to create a class schedule that would be conducive to work and school.

LAO report author Judy Heiman, who studied all 15 of the colleges offering bachelor’s degrees under the pilot, noted San Diego’s programs were particularly well attuned to workforce needs. And she said they show promise for expanding opportunities to new populations — many students told her they weren’t considering bachelor’s degrees at all before the pilot.

But in her report Heiman cautioned the legislature on approving an expansion. She said there is too little data at this early stage to make an informed decision and recommended both moving up the next review from 2023 to 2021 and extending the existing pilot programs so more data can be collected.

San Diego Community College District Chancellor Constance Carroll chairs a group that promotes the effort and said state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is already working on a bill to extend it.

“If California is serious about jobs, and if California is serious about wanting to provide pathways to the middle class in a way that does not duplicate what the public universities are doing, then California is poised at some point to see an expansion in this very wonderful program.”

Carroll said 23 states already offer bachelor’s degrees through their community colleges on a permanent basis.

Mesa College will graduate its first cohort of students earning four-year degrees in May. MiraCosta will hand out its first bachelor's degrees in 2019. But the programs' futures are uncertain.

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