Linda Thor's mission began 19 years ago, when she was president of a community college in Phoenix. She had been running a program for local police officers to provide training beyond what their two-year associate degrees had given them. The police chief approached her with a simple yet unusual question. Could she offer a bachelor’s degree for law enforcement?
The proposal made sense to Thor, who’d seen first-hand that associate degrees were often insufficient to meet the needs of the 21st century workforce, who needed more skills than two years of college could provide. If a community college could offer such a bachelor’s degree, as well as degrees in other fields, it would become far more accessible and economically competitive than private and even state colleges.
But there was a problem. In Arizona, “the law says we can only offer degrees up to two years,” Thor recalls telling the police chief. The solution was simple: Change the law. The process was anything but.
Thor approached a state senator about introducing “what we thought was a non-controversial bill” to amend the restrictions on community colleges. The proposal succeeded in both houses of the state legislature, but it was ultimately vetoed by the governor at the behest of local universities. After several more attempts, Arizona still refused to pass the bill. In 2010, Thor, a California native, moved to Los Altos to become chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College. By this time she had already created the Community College Baccalaureate Association, a national organization that advocates for bachelor’s degrees on community college campuses across the country.
When she resumed her work on expanding the scope of community college education here in the Bay Area, she found a much more receptive audience.
“By then, 21 states had authorized their community colleges to offer baccalaureates,” Thor says. “We weren’t talking about making community colleges universities, we’re not talking about offering bachelor’s degrees in history and sociology and political science; we’re talking about addressing the fact that jobs that previously could be met with an associate degree (AA) now require a bachelor’s degree (BA).”
“Once people understood that,” Thor continues, “they went, ‘Wow, that makes a great deal of sense.’”
Teaming up with Constance Carroll, the chancellor of San Diego’s community college district, and State Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), Thor pushed into law Senate Bill 850, which authorized a pilot program for select community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. In September of last year, the bill passed unanimously in both houses of the California legislature, and late last month, Thor’s Foothill College was selected as one of 15 schools to host the pilot program.
“This is an almost two-decade goal of mine,” she says, “so needless to say, I’m pretty ecstatic that it happened.”
Each of the 15 schools selected for the pilot program will offer one bachelor’s degree in a subject that has specific ties to the local job market and doesn’t overlap with curriculum of a nearby University of California or California State University school. Foothill College was approved to offer a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene—which will start in the fall of 2016—and other community colleges across the state will offer degrees in areas such as mortuary science, respiratory care, health information management and industrial automation.
California once ranked among the top in the nation on many educational indicators, making it a model for public higher education across the world. Today, the state ranks 49th in the number of adults who have at least a high school degree and the percentage of high school seniors who enter higher education.
“That is a remarkable thing, considering we used to be number one for almost an entire century,” says John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.
California also has the lowest percentage of people entering four-year degree programs than any other state, according to Douglass; more than 70 percent of the state’s college students are going to community colleges, where they will pursue two-year degrees.
“The number of students who go on to earn a BA is a really important benchmark for productivity for meeting labor needs,” Douglass says. “The AA degree is suitable to some degree, but less and less so in these economies that are driven by knowledge and highly technical labor needs.”
Dental hygiene, for example, once required only an associate degree; now, the American Association of Dental Hygienists is moving toward a bachelor’s as the entry-level requirement. “Medicine and dentistry are getting more complex, and the type of patients the dental hygienist will see is increasingly complex,” says Phyllis Spragge, director of the dental hygiene program at Foothill.
According to a 2009 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s economy will fall one million college graduates short of what it needs by the year of 2025. By that time, the economy will need 41 percent of its workforce to have college degrees, but projections show only 35 percent of working-age adults will have one.
“The pilot program begins to provide a path toward greater BA production rates,” Douglass says. “We have over 70 percent of our undergraduate students going to community colleges, but it hasn’t been productive in terms of the BA.”
Another benefit of offering these bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges is that tuition will be significantly lower than at a state university or private college. Thor estimates that four years of coursework to earn the dental hygienist bachelor’s at Foothill will cost just $10,500. By contrast, four years of tuition at the University of California, Berkeley, is more than $50,000. A vote last year by the UC regents approved a tuition hike of as much as 28 percent over the next five years, so that by 2019, one year of public college education could cost as much as $15,500.
Still, Douglass says, the new community college offerings won’t change the structural problems plaguing California’s public higher education system.
“This will help, only partially, because it’s not bold enough yet,” he adds, pointing out that the present program is “too restrictive” and concerned about overlap with CSUs and UCs. (Bachelor’s degrees in nursing, for example, were excluded from the pilot program since CSUs offer them—even though labor needs in this field are high.)
The underlying issue of financing in the state also remains unaddressed. “Foothill-De Anza and Santa Monica sit in robust communities with high incomes, and they have other resources that provide high quality programs and enrollment,” Douglass says. “But many, many community colleges are not in that situation and the funding structure is hindered by a slow erosion in both local and state funding, including capital.”
Nancy Shulock, former director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at CSU Sacramento, says real change will require a perception shift on career technical education. “These are bachelor’s degrees in fields such as dental hygiene and automotive technology—things that people used to think were just educational programs,” she says. “This could help people understand that these career pathways require high levels of education.”