Exploring the value of community college baccalaureates

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    As states across the country look to clear barriers to bachelor’s level education, half are now leveraging the community college baccalaureate (CCB) as a strategy. Twenty five states now authorize at least one community college to offer at least one bachelor’s degree program. Since the first state CCB authorization in West Virginia in 1989, the growth of authorizing states has steadily climbed upward. Yet, just in the last 5 years, the pace has picked up: 8 new states have authorized CCBs since 2017. CCBs are now authorized in half of states, and it is time to take a look at what CCBs offer and what we know about graduates and their outcomes.

    What is a CCB?

    A community college baccalaureate (CCB) is a 4-year bachelor’s degree earned at a community college.

    What do CCBs offer states?

    Three reasons states may want to offer CCBs are to:

    • align studies in high-need fields
    • build on successful associate degree programs
    • advance equity

    States that wish to diversify their strategies for bachelor’s degree attainment may be interested in using CCBs alongside clear transfer pathways for community college students. In some fields of study, particularly in allied health, degree requirements or employers’ expectations of a bachelor’s degree are increasing. With occupations essential to community well-being like nursing and respiratory therapy, states may wish to build on already successful community college associate programs in these fields by adding the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree.

    Furthermore, community colleges welcome high shares of racially minoritized, low-income, and first generation college students. Given that fact, states with equity goals around bachelor’s attainment might consider bringing bachelor’s opportunities to community colleges.

    What do CCBs offer community colleges?

    This sector of higher education has many missions, one of which is to facilitate students’ career launch and growth. Does a rural community need to recruit and retain more teachers? The community college could step in and address that need, especially in an area with no public university. Are universities in a large city unable to fill the local need for allied health professionals? Enter the community college and its diverse student body with deep local roots. These programs aren’t meant to unnecessarily duplicate universities’ offerings but rather to collaboratively address community and student needs.

    Seeing the benefits of adding select bachelor’s degrees, community colleges across the country have built a wide array of programs. Our most up-to-date count includes 565 approved CCB programs across the country at 142 institutions. Over 80% of these CCB programs fall into 1 of 7 areas of study. Most common are:

    • allied health
    • business
    • nursing
    • engineering technology
    • education
    • IT
    • security/law enforcement

    Whether these are bachelor of science, bachelor of applied science, or some other type of degree, a look at the most common CCB majors shows that these programs are closely connected to careers. In fact, most authorizing states require proposed CCBs to demonstrate the labor market relevance of the program.

    These programs aren’t meant to unnecessarily duplicate universities’ offerings but rather to collaboratively address community and student needs.

    What do CCBs offer students?

    Community colleges serve many students for whom affordability is a major factor. While CCBs are usually less expensive than traditional bachelor’s degrees, tuition policy for community college bachelor’s degrees varies by state. For instance, CCB upper division tuition in Washington is required to be similar to what public universities charge. In other states like Nevada, upper and lower division tuition at community colleges are both considerably lower than what students would pay at a public university. A number of Florida community colleges even offer $10,000 CCB degree programs–indicating the cost for 4 full years of tuition, just under the national average in-state tuition for a single year at a public university.

    In addition to providing affordable options, community colleges’ familiarity with students managing multiple roles in life has helped them creatively develop and deliver bachelor’s programs for these students. For example, Skagit Valley College in Washington offers a cohort-based bachelor of applied science in applied management. Prior to the pandemic, the cohort completed most of their coursework online with limited in-person seminars. Building a program cohort not only helped students broaden and deepen their skill sets but also form a tight-knit, supportive community for one another. Today, the program is fully online and still leverages close collaboration and relationships within the cohort to foster student success.

    South Texas College, an early CCB adopter in the state, offers 4 bachelor’s degree programs that center competency-based education and can be completed online or in person, according to students’ preferences. Students in these CCB programs pay a flat tuition fee of $850 per term and may take or trial as many courses in the program as they choose. The flexibility of both location and modality, coupled with low tuition, creates accessible baccalaureate pathways for students across the McAllen area in fields such as information technology, technology management, and organizational leadership.

    Who earns CCB degrees, and how are they faring in the labor market?

    Thus far, most research on CCB students and graduates, including a recent report I co-authored with Elizabeth Meza, has focused on the 2 states with the most programs and students: Florida and Washington. In Florida, 42% of CCB graduates in our research sample were people of color. Washington data included a comparison group of public university bachelor’s graduates. CCB graduates in common areas of study were slightly more racially and ethnically diverse than their university counterparts (28% versus 25%, respectively). While there is still considerable room to grow in enrolling and supporting racially minoritized students’ bachelor’s degree attainment, CCBs can serve as a useful racial equity strategy.

    Our samples of Florida and Washington CCB graduates mirror the gender composition of bachelor’s degree graduates overall, at 55% female in Washington and 57% in Florida. Within areas of study, most gender breakdowns mirror broader labor market trends. Healthcare and education are strongly female dominated, while IT and engineering technology are strongly male dominated. However, we did find that women comprised over half of business graduates in both Florida and Washington, a promising finding in an area where women have historically been underserved.

    One characteristic about CCB students that clearly stands out is their age. Recent research on Washington indicated that the average CCB student was 32. Similarly, earlier analysis found that the average CCB student was 31 in Florida, compared to an average of 22 for upper-division students at state universities. This wide age gap suggests that CCBs provide important access points for adults who are likely to be working and may have family responsibilities while pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The long standing experience of community colleges welcoming adult learners bodes well for older potential students wanting to pursue a bachelor’s degree at an institution that acknowledges and honors their many roles in life.

    KEY TAKEAWAY

    Although the gender breakdown is similar to that found in general undergraduate programs, CCB students tend to be older and more racially and ethnically diverse.

    How are CCB students faring in college and beyond?

    Initial data from Washington suggests that students in CCB programs have relatively strong educational outcomes. Students who transferred from a Washington community or technical college to a public university had a 70% bachelor’s degree completion rate, while those who opted for CCB programs had a 68% completion rate. These completion rates are strong and testify to the success of Washington’s transfer and CCB pathways to bachelor’s degrees.

    In Florida and Washington, graduates of CCB programs seem to fare quite well in the labor market.

    • In Florida, CCB graduates earned an average of around $10,000 more per year than peers who had just graduated from an associate degree in a similar field of study.
    • In Washington, CCB graduates in IT and business earned more a year after graduation than peers who had just graduated from a university bachelor’s degree program in a similar field.
    • Pay in healthcare fields for CCB graduates was slightly lower than their university peers, but still strong.

    These labor market outcomes suggest CCBs can be a strategy to advance economic equity, given that many low income students attend community colleges.

    Conclusion

    Higher education can, on rare occasions, evolve quickly. For CCB authorization to have reached half of states in just over 30 years is truly remarkable. Their close connection to career development, low cost, and promising outcomes make community college baccalaureates an attractive bachelor’s attainment and workforce development strategy. For students and their communities, CCBs may just offer the career and life-changing opportunity they have been looking for.

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