A new program offering career-focused bachelor’s degrees at California Community Colleges could begin to shift the combined higher education and employment crises in the state.
“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” George Washington Carver
Living in a society where possessing a college degree is key to securing a well-paying job, the opportunity and access to obtain those degrees is crucial. As students strive to build a better standard of living for themselves and their communities, policy makers and higher education advocates have been stuck with the strenuous task of finding more creative and impactful solutions to educating people. In an era of high demand yet seemingly limited supply, class offerings at the university level in California have become increasingly scarce, leaving it to community colleges to increase their role in educating the workforce of tomorrow.
Historically, community colleges are known for offering two-year degrees and certificate programs to students who are looking to quickly enter the workforce. While there is a transfer student population planning to transition to a four-year university, that is not their widely known purpose, at least not in California. According to the Vision Statement posted on the website of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, community colleges are designed to “provide access to lifelong learning for all citizens and create a skilled, progressive workforce to advance the state’s interests.” In the advancement of this mission statement, Governor Jerry Brown has just signed into law a pilot program allowing certain community colleges to offer a bachelor’s degree program for courses not currently offered at the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) level.
Senate Bill 850, drafted by Senator Marty Block from San Diego calls for selected districts to develop a pilot program to offer a bachelor’s degree program beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, and ending in 2022-2023. It is the intention of the pilot program to offer degrees in courses not otherwise available at traditional four-year institutions, focusing on more direct, career-driven programs such as dental hygiene or radiology. According to the text of the bill itself, the intention is “to produce more professionals in health, biotechnology, public safety, and other in-demand fields.” Advocates of the bill stress that the pilot program is not trying to compete with the UC or CSU systems, which is why it was tailored to specific fields. In an attempt to keep costs affordable for students, pricing for classes in the program are capped at the rates offered by CSUs. Also, in order to prevent money from the Board of Governors (BOG) waiver from being shifted away from students still obtaining the traditional two-year degrees and certificates, the bill calls for students enrolling in the pilot program to apply for a Free Federal Financial Aid Application or California Dream Act application in lieu of a BOG waiver.
The most promising aspect of this bill is its mission to fill the gap between employers who need workers, and workers who need employers to provide jobs. It is specifically outlined in the bill that districts must “identify and document unmet workforce needs in the subject area of the baccalaureate degree to be offered and offer a baccalaureate degree at a campus in a subject area with unmet workforce needs in the local community or region of the district.” The districts have an added responsibility to strategically plan which BA programs to offer in order to most beneficially serve the surrounding community. While we won’t know the impact this law will have on California Community Colleges just yet, considering the fact it passed with a unanimous vote, the least we can say is our representatives believe there is some positive change to be made.
While this program is nothing brand-new, with colleges in twenty-one other states already offering BA degrees in similar areas described in the bill, it is new to California, and has the potential to begin to shift the dynamic regarding education and workforce needs across the state. Florida is a great example of a state that allows community colleges to offer BA degrees. Educators in Florida saw enrollment in community college BA programs quadruple in a period of five years. Currently, twenty-five of their twenty-eight community colleges offer BA degree programs. This just goes to show, while SB 850 is by no means the end-all solution to the crisis affecting the higher education or employment systems in California, it is a step forward in the direction of progress for students and workers everywhere.
Rachel Kanakaole is the Chapter Head of the San Bernardino Valley Community College chapter of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and one of the New Chapters Coordinator for the Western Region.