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Opinion, Santa Monica, Columnist, Education, Government

Four-Year Degrees At Community Colleges? Why Not?

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

Posted Oct. 19, 2013, 6:20 am

Tom Elias / Mirror Columnist

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 A.A. 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 held meetings recently 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. And 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, 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 junior 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.

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