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Community Colleges - Should They Offer Four-Year Degrees?

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The nation’s community colleges are currently seeing growth similar to when they first opened. Today they enroll more than half of all undergraduates in the country. The reputations of most community colleges are stellar.

The path is a common one. Go to a community college for a year or two, figure out what you want to be when you grow up, and transfer to a four-year college. In the near future, you may be able to omit the transfer portion. That’s right—-some community colleges are now offering bachelor’s degrees and many more are planning to.

Traditionally, community colleges have educated those who cannot afford to study elsewhere. The open enrollment policies and flexible class schedules appeal to students who work or have families. Community colleges play a large part in training the local workforce. Unfortunately community colleges are at a crossroads. Many think that community college should toughen their academic standards rather than focus on awarding bachelor’s degrees.

Critics of developing bachelor degree programs at two-year colleges cite a blurred line between educations and duplication of services. What you will receive will be a second-rate baccalaureate degree. The community college function will be lost.

Numerous states have authorized community colleges to offer bachelor degrees with more schools considering the issue. Some colleges have completely dropped the words “community” or “junior” from their names as they have added bachelor’s degrees. These changes are largelybecause of increases in population, shortages of funds to build new four-year colleges, and the rising cost of tuition, educators say.

Today’s employers are looking for a highly technical global work force. Community colleges are equipped to educate this work force. Backers of community college bachelor’s degrees generally say the degrees would be “applied” bachelors and are different than the bachelor’s degrees awarded from four-year universities. Applied bachelor’s would be limited to certain technical fields and would concentrate on work-force training with competency-based skills. In contrast, traditional universities focus on providing students with theory that they apply to work situations.

Permitting community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees makes sense demographically. A predicted influx of students in the coming decade could overwhelm the ability to accommodate everyone who wants a higher education. Universities can’t meet student demand geographically. Cost is another big factor. Community college costs about half as much as a public university. There are many reasons, pro and con, for adding a four-year college.

There are 5.4 million students enrolled in credit classes at two-year colleges – and another 5 million enrolled in non-degree classes. Years ago the completion of high school used to equip someone with sufficient knowledge and skills for a lifetime. This is no longer true. The pace that things become obsolete is quick.

Remedial skills are also needed. A recent survey found that 36% of job applicants lacked the math and reading skills needed for the position they were seeking. These are skills that are taught at a community college, not a four-year university. To survive in the global business economy, companies must have lifelong skill development. They expect community colleges to provide their retraining.

There is a concern for quality in community colleges. While they need to train the workforce, they must also prepare students for transfer to a four-year college. A recent study indicated that liberal arts classes accounted for roughly 56% of all credit classes taken at two-year institutions. The liberal arts transfer route is as stable as the workforce development route. It’s not that colleges do either this or that. They do both.

Community colleges should remain what they are – institutions to prepare for transfer to a four-year institution and workforce training. Leave junior and senior year to the universities. I am not against providing satellite campuses at community colleges for nearby universities with popular degree programs. I just think that part of college is your interaction with your environment. Don’t miss out on it if at all possible.

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Michelle D Plecha about 7 years ago Michelle D Plecha


Yes, as long as the degrees are in economic need (i.e. Nursing, Technology, etc.). I wrote my dissertation on The Community College Bacclaurate: Institutional Isomorphism or Diversity, check it out. -Dr. Michelle D Plecha, UCLA