elias column sig

State, national columnists

4-year degrees at Solano College? Why not?

By From page A8 | November 02, 2013

Maybe it’s been just an ego thing or a matter of turf, but administrators and some alumni groups at the University of California and the California State University systems for years have adamantly opposed the notion of community colleges granting anything more than two-year associate of arts degrees.

But this idea is making more sense than ever, especially amid continuing cutbacks at many existing four-year schools. It’s also an idea that’s allowed in more than 20 other states.

The possibility gained more practicality the other day, when Gov. Jerry Brown, attending a Cal State trustees meeting in Long Beach, criticized a preliminary CSU budget plan seeking hundreds of millions of new state dollars next year. CSU could use that money to ease the current enrollment crunch, which sees tens of thousands of qualified students turned away from the state’s public universities each year.

But Brown told his fellow trustees that CSU might need to fix leaky roofs and make other structural repairs before increasing enrollment.

So where can qualified students go once they’ve earned associate degrees and want to transfer to a four-year school?

Why not let them stay put and earn bachelor’s degrees right where they’ve been?

It’s an idea under quiet consideration by the huge California community college system, home to one-fourth of all junior college students in America. A task force of officials from all three of the state’s higher education systems quietly met about whether to seek four-year authority for the 112 community colleges.

This move, of course, would challenge traditional fiefdoms established by the state’s 1960s-era Master Plan for Higher Education, which sets up a definite hierarchy, community colleges tasked primarily to provide job training for local students.

The colleges already go well beyond that. Many would like to join counterparts in places like Michigan and Florida that give bachelor’s degrees, mostly in technical fields. One candidate for such degrees in California might be nursing, where many community colleges now excel.

There are already some breaches of the Master Plan tradition, most notably the fact that Cal State offers several doctoral degrees, an area once reserved for UC schools.

Letting community colleges do more makes pure economic sense, too. The system charges far lower tuition and fees than the four-year schools, and already offers basic classes so good that both UC and CSU allow transfer students full credit for them. Many faculty members are at least as qualified as the majority at the more prestigious four-year campuses.

But the four-year schools have never liked this idea. For one thing, it would let community colleges compete for precious tuition dollars.

Yes, there have been some tuition increases at the community colleges, but they remain well below either UC or CSU. The two-year schools also are often far closer to students’ homes than their big brothers. The twin factors of cost and location make community colleges accessible to far more students than either of the higher systems.

The notion of community colleges doing more was first voiced prominently in 2008 by Democratic state Sen. Jerry Hill of San Mateo (then an assemblyman), who sought the change just for the San Mateo college district. His bill went nowhere.

In 2009, he was joined by Democratic state Sen. Marty Block of San Diego, also an assemblyman at the time. Block, a former dean at San Diego State University and an ex-president of the San Diego Community College District board, said he sees no sound reason for not making the change.

“We have a lot of well-respected community colleges . . .,” he told a hearing. “They could do a fine job offering those next two years to students, at least in certain disciplines.”

But pushing a major change like this won’t be easy, perhaps one reason the current discussions have been so quiet. Turf battles are inevitable, as professors at four-year schools won’t want their prestige spread around. There’s also the question of whether most community colleges could offer small seminars and advanced laboratory facilities to upperclassmen.

But there seems little doubt this change is doable, and probably in pretty short order. It’s also something that needs to happen soon or California risks depriving many thousands of its brightest young people of opportunities long promised to them.

Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]

Thomas Elias


Discussion | 2 comments

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  • L.November 02, 2013 - 1:19 am

    They charge less because, with their mandate limited to basic courses they can contain their costs and keep them to the basics, which is all you really need for a first or second year college student. If you add the infrastructure so that they can credibly offer a four-year degree their students' costs will creep right up to what CSUs are charging. In the same vein, CSUs, like Sonoma State, have been adding program after program and amenity after amenity so that now they're starting to look pretty close to UC campuses - and their prices have been creeping up and up and are starting to look pretty close to bottom rate UC prices. We have to watch our for mission creep. The master plan is actually a pretty good plan in principal and if followed with discipline.

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  • my2centsNovember 02, 2013 - 6:01 am

    I went to a California Community college. I could not afford to go to a CSU or UC college while working full time to support myself. I wish I could have done all four years at my community college. It was just as good as the four year university I was forced to transfer to. This old school adherence to prohibiting students from obtaining a BA from their community college is causing mass migration to on line private "colleges" which often have little to no classroom instruction or interaction between students and other students, and students and faculty, an critical component to education. There is no reason why all the classes I took in my 3rd and 4th year as a political science major could not have been offered at a CC. If CCs don't adapt soon, they will loose out to on line education.

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