Earning a bachelor’s degree at community college

January 5, 2022

Dr. Michael Nietzel

An increasing number of U.S. community colleges are awarding bachelor’s degrees. This trend in higher education gained additional momentum this year after Arizona and California passed laws that authorize or expand the ability of their community colleges to award 4-year degrees.

For the moment at least, the source of degree is unlikely to be a massive factor, thanks to a very good job market across many different fields. Couple this with lower cost and greater scheduling flexibility, and getting a bachelor at community college is worth a serious look.

By signing  Senate Bill 1453 into law, Governor Doug Ducey enabled the state’s community colleges to offer 4-year college degrees, making Arizona the 24th state where community colleges can grant baccalaureate degrees under certain conditions.

More recently, California passed Assembly Bill 927, signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 6, 2021.  This legislation made baccalaureate programs that were being piloted at 15 community colleges permanent. In addition, it opened the opportunity for other community colleges across the state to offer bachelor’s degrees. Under the law, the California Community College’s system can offer a maximum of 30 new bachelor’s degree programs per year, as long as the programs answer different workforce needs than those already provided for by the B.A. and B.S. programs available at the state’s universities.

The jury is out on whether potential employers will demonstrate a preference for the traditional 4-year school BA/BS pathway. For the moment at least, the source of degree is unlikely to be a massive factor, thanks to a very good job market across many different fields. Couple this with lower cost and greater scheduling flexibility, and getting a bachelor at community college is worth a serious look.

The debate to allow bachelor’s degrees at community colleges

Arizona’s and California’s decisions allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees followed debates similar to those heard in other states that have addressed the issue.

According to the 2020 Education Commission of the States brief, the main arguments – pro and con – for the policy are as listed.

Advocates cite 3 justifications for such expansion:

  1. Community colleges are usually more nimble than 4-year institutions and therefore can more quickly develop and offer degree programs that address changing workforce needs, particularly in high-demand fields.
  2. Community colleges can offer bachelor’s degrees to more diverse student populations, especially in areas of a state that do not have a nearby 4-year institution. They’re also designed to serve nontraditional groups such as low-income, first-generation, older students, as well as students of color.
  3. A bachelor’s degree from a community college is usually less expensive than the tuition and fees charged by 4-year institutions. Therefore, the policy helps promote affordability and lower student loan debt.

Opponents typically point to 4 objections to expanding community college degrees:

  1. Community college bachelor’s degrees introduce mission creep that distracts institutions from their primary expertise in offering associate degrees and certificates, and preparing students to transfer to 4-year campuses.
  2. The policy encourages duplication of effort and increased competition with 4-year schools for students, faculty, and state funding. Such duplication is costly and inefficient.
  3. Because of the costs of gaining regional accreditation, adding faculty and staff, and building or upgrading facilities for B.A. and B.S. programs, the costs of maintaining A.A. programs at community colleges will either increase (as they subsidize the new B.A. programs), or those bachelor’s degrees will be of inferior quality to those offered at 4-year institutions.
  4. Concerns about historically low retention and degree-completion rates at community colleges are often raised as a reason why states should not commit more resources to baccalaureate programs at them.

State restrictions on these new programs

As a result of these arguments, most states, like Arizona, place various limitations on community colleges schools offering 2-year degrees. Common conditions include:

  • proving that program duplication will not occur
  • limiting the number of institutions authorized to offer the degrees
  • specifying the degree programs that will be allowed
  • capping the tuition that can be charged
  • establishing an economic/workforce need by employers, communities or regions before green-lighting a new program

Nonetheless, state level enthusiasm for authorizing community college bachelor’s degrees is apparent, with the following 24 states granting authority for these programs: Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

In addition, support for this changing role of community colleges that aims to boost the nation’s educational attainment and economic recovery from the Biden administration, makes it likely the trend will continue.

Leaders of 4-year universities may see the handwriting on the wall. Although Larry Penley, Chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the state’s 4-year public universities, objected to Arizona’s law, the presidents of 2 of the state’s universities – Michael Crow at Arizona State and Rita Cheng at the University of Northern Arizona – did not voice opposition.

Ditto for California. The leaders of both the University of California and California State University did not object to the new law expanding 4-year degree options at the state’s community colleges.

The response from 4-year universities – the silver lining for some students

Of course, flexibility in degree authority can be a two-way street. Unsurprisingly, leaders of 4-year universities have begun to expand their own degree opportunities.

One such example is reverse transfera process for awarding an A.A. degree to students who transfer from a 2-year to a 4-year institution prior to completing the A.A. requirements at the 2-year institution. Reverse transfer allows students to combine credits earned at their 4-year school with those previously earned at community college and be retroactively awarded an associate’s degree by the community college. Think of it as a second chance at a first degree.

At least 7 states—Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon and Texas— have passed legislation implementing reverse transfer policies. They have often done so as part of a strategy to increase the number of citizens in a given state who have a college degree.

The argument for this being: Many students have completed the coursework required for an associate degree and should not be precluded from receiving that degree just because they did the work at a 4-year college.

Another option would be for 4-year institutions to grant A.A. degrees to students who are working toward a bachelor’s degree. According to some estimates, at least a third of universities may already offer A.A. degrees. These degrees are typically in specific occupation-oriented areas such as health, hospitality, technology, or manufacturing where an A.A. degree is the entry-level credential.

A proposal, championed by Temple Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, is that 4-year schools could begin to offer associate degrees along the way toward baccalaureate degrees. This is not such an extreme idea. Consider, master’s degrees are often granted to students in Ph.D. programs. Although this can be a planned milestone, it is often seen as a consolation prize for students unable to finish their doctoral degrees. Why not allow students to routinely earn an A.A. after they complete a specified list of credits on their way to their bachelor’s? The argument for this being: Many students have completed the coursework required for an associate degree and should not be precluded from receiving that degree just because they did the work at a 4-year college.

What comes next?

Before implementing broad availability of embedded A.A. degrees, considerable policy work needs to be done. For example, should 4-year schools require a new 60-hour curriculum or simply award the A.A. after students complete an institution’s general education core and any additional courses necessary to reach a 60-credit threshold? And similar to those objections voiced by 4-year schools against bachelor’s degrees at community colleges, what is the likelihood of turf battles waged by the 2-year sector objecting to embedded A.A. degrees at 4-year colleges?

Ultimately, the fundamental question should not be what degree policies are in an institution’s best interests, but rather what degree options best serve the needs of students. Greater degree permeability between 2-year and -year institutions is an idea whose time has come. It’s also a policy that puts students first. Right where they belong.

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