Why Cal State is pushing back on community colleges’ plans to offer bachelor’s degrees (2023)

Why Cal State is pushing back on community colleges’ plans to offer bachelor’s degrees (1)

For over a year, the California Community College and the California State University systems have clashed over their respective roles.

The focus of the dispute: Who should be granting bachelor’s degrees?

The Cal State Chancellor’s Office says many community colleges are stepping outside their bounds by proposing bachelor’s programs that duplicate what Cal State campuses already offer. Community colleges disagree.

The issue goes to the core missions of these higher education systems and the boundaries that the state set for them back in 1960.

That’s when California’s Master Plan for Higher Education laid out the roles for each system. For the state’s community colleges, the plan says they were designed to award two-year associate degrees and provide career training, while the Cal State system would offer four-year bachelor’s and master’s degrees and the University of California system would prioritize research and doctoral programs.

Now anew lawallows the community college system to approve up to 30 new bachelor’s degree programs each year at any one of the state’s 116 community colleges.Moorpark College is one of those community colleges and will offer a bachelor's degrees under a new biotechnology program that launches in fall 2024.

The law, which went into effect last year, has a caveat: Community colleges can only offer bachelor’s degrees in unique fields that no other public four-year campus currently offers. It’s this caveat that is at the root of recent conflicts.

“I understand that CSUs (Cal State University campuses) and UCs may be feeling like community colleges are getting a larger allocation or are stepping into their lane,” said Laura Cantú, vice president of academic affairs for Los Angeles Mission College. “But there’s a reason why California decided that we should allow community colleges to offer some of the baccalaureates (bachelor’s degrees). It’s a way for us to really provide an onramp, a mechanism, for social mobility.”

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The Cal State Academic Senate has saidit’s worried about losing moneyin the event that community colleges offer more bachelor’s degrees.

In an email to CalMatters, Cal State spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith said there are opportunities for partnership when duplication concerns arise. Some strategies are already in place, like guaranteed admission to Cal State campuses for community college students and joint degree programs where students attend a community college and a Cal State at the same time, often virtually.

Meanwhile, the Cal State University Chancellor’s Office has thrown its support behind a proposed law authored by Sacramento DemocratKevin McCarty. While the Cal State system offers a few doctoral programs, the bill would grant it the right to approve many more, as long as the programs “do not duplicate University of California doctoral degrees.”

As the bill winds through the statehouse, the UC system has asked for amendments to prevent Cal State campuses from duplicating what it already offers.

Thousands of dollars saved

In a state with over 2.5 million students across the public college and university systems, only a few thousand community college students a year, at most, could benefit from the new bachelor’s degree program.

Still, the few community college students who have enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program on campus say that they are cheaper and more convenient than the nearest Cal State or UC option. A recent report from UCLA shows that’sespecially the case for low-income students and students of color.

The Cal State system uses similar arguments to say that it should be allowed to award more doctorate degrees.

Jessa Garcia received a bachelor’s degree in art and multimedia design in 2011, but after getting furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she wanted a more “stable” career and started looking into biology programs near her home in Oceanside, in north San Diego County.

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She said she spoke to an admissions representative at Cal State San Marcos, the nearest public four-year university, who told her she was not eligible because she already had a degree. A spokesperson for Cal State San Marcos said the system will begin accepting students like Garcia in fall 2024 when regulations change.

MiraCosta College’sbiomanufacturing programwas the perfect solution, she said. “MiraCosta is close to me, like less than 10 minutes away,” she said. ”It’s a science-related degree, and it was accessible to someone who already holds a degree.”

By the time she graduates in May, the bachelor’s degree will cost her a total of around $4,000 in tuition, in part because she was able to carry over credits from her earlier degree. Garcia said she already has her eyes set on a few internships where the starting wage is around $25 an hour.

The average bachelor’s degree at a community college costs $10,560, which is “less than half the tuition at even the most affordable public universities,” the Community College Chancellor’s Officestates on its site. Community college leaders across the state say these local, low-cost bachelor’s degree programs are the only option for some students and that students who live near a Cal State campus may not get accepted there.

Last year, the Cal State system rejected between 3,000 and 3,500 eligible community college applicants, Bentley-Smith said.

“We’re an institution that has a high rate of students on federal financial aid,” said Don Miller, vice president of academic affairs at Rio Hondo College, which is located in southeastern Los Angeles County. “They live in the area. They tend to be more focused on the region.”

Why Cal State is pushing back on community colleges’ plans to offer bachelor’s degrees (2)

LA Mission, Rio Hondo stall

This year, Rio Hondo College submitted an application to develop a bachelor’s degree program in popular electronic music, but it is fighting objections about duplication from San Francisco State, San Jose State, San Diego State, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State San Bernardino.

“The majority of our students are not the kind of students who are going to go to SF to get a degree,” Miller said.

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At the same time, Los Angeles Mission College submitted an application to offer a bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing. Part of the logic for the application, said Cantú, was that MiraCosta College, Solano Community College and Moorpark College already had approval from the Cal State system to offer bachelor’s degrees in biomanufacturing as part of earlier application processes.

Further, Nathan Evans, a deputy vice chancellor for the Cal State system, had told one of Cantú’s colleaguesin an emailthat there would be a “minimal amount of additional information” required when “similar proposals” had already been approved.

She submitted the application — more than 100 pages in total — in January. On May 31, she got an email notifying her that the Cal State Chancellor’s Office had flagged the application because some campuses said it duplicated their programs.

While she’s excited about the potential, she said the experience has left her feeling “anxious” and “just a little disappointed,” especially for the potential students. “We talk about wanting to get our community members ready for these high-wage positions. We cannot train the pipeline fast enough.”

Bentley-Smith said it would be “premature” to comment on Cantú’s proposal.

Tensions flare

There must be two rounds of applications every year, according to the law, but last year, the Community College Chancellor’s Office only ran one round of applications, which took more than 15 months.

One of last year’s proposals, a bachelor’s degree in applied fire management from rural Feather River College,remains a sore pointfor Cal State. The Community College Chancellor’s Office approved the program and is moving ahead, even though Cal State leaders remain opposed.

Senate Education Committee ChairpersonJosh Newman, a Brea Democrat, and Assembly Higher Education ChairpersonMike Fong, a Monterey Park Democrat, were concerned that this year’s applications would face the same obstacles as last year. In March, they issueda strongly worded letterto the Community College Chancellor’s Office, asking it to “pause” new bachelor’s degree applications until the two higher education systems could come to an agreement over duplication concerns.

(Video) Looking Toward the Future of Community College Bachelor's Degrees

The Community College Chancellor’s Office never took the recommended “pause” and continued to accept applications from its campuses, only to hit the same challenges as before. Half of this year’s 14 applications have been approved, but the remaining seven are delayed over disagreements about duplication.

The state law requires that the Cal State system provide “supporting evidence” to explain any objection to a community college’s application and gives the two systems 30 days to come to a resolution over any duplication concerns.

But months have passed since the Cal State Chancellor’s Office expressed concern over Cantú’s application, and she still doesn’t have any evidence to explain why. In June, the Community College Chancellor’s Office sent Cantú a note, saying that the Cal State system had failed to provide supporting evidence after “repeated requests.”

Still, both sides say that they are handling the application process correctly.

The Cal State Chancellor’s Office says it is abiding by the spirit of the pause that state legislators asked for this spring. The Community College Chancellor’s Office says it is following the state law, which sets the strict timeline of two rounds of applications each year.

While there was no pause in applications, the two systems did agree to form a committee that would create new policies in the event of future disagreements. The committee has met three times but has yet to issue any new policy that would resolve future clashes around duplication. In a statement to CalMatters, Bentley-Smith said the committee would meet again in the fall.

“There is no dispute between the systems,” she said, pointing to the ongoing work of the committee.

On July 17, the Community College Chancellor’s Office hired the Research and Planning Group for the California Community Colleges, an independent consulting firm, to evaluate the duplication concerns. Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications for the California Community College Chancellor’s Office said the contract was “internal” to their office.

(Video) Advantages to Starting at a Community College - Associate Degree for Transfer

Adam Echelman covers community colleges through a partnership between CalMatters and Open Campus.He can be reached at aechelman@calmatters.org.


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The Cal State Academic Senate has said it's worried about losing money in the event that community colleges offer more bachelor's degrees.

Why might you consider community college if you know you want a four-year bachelor's degree? ›

Four–year schools generally require you to be a full–time student. On the other hand, many community college students take classes part-time as they work or pursue other interests. Spending two years at a community college can give you time to work and save up for the four-year college of your choice.

Can you get a bachelor's degree at a community college in California? ›

Under a 2021 law, the state can approve up to 30 community college bachelor's degrees annually, across two cycles each year. And demand is high: In the latest cycle, with 15 slots available, the community college chancellor's office received applications for 29 programs from 26 colleges.

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Community colleges are known for their affordability due to no campus housing fees, food plans and other overhead costs associated with a larger university, as well as more opportunities for students to qualify for financial aid like scholarships and grants.

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Whether you are looking for more upward mobility in your career, a new opportunity to learn and grow professionally, or a better life for your family through a higher annual salary, the reasons for exploring a bachelor's degree program are many.

Should I put community college on resume if I have a bachelor's degree? ›

If you attended college at one institution — perhaps a community college — and then completed your education in another place, you only need to list the university where you completed your degree.

Is a degree from a community college called a Bachelor's degree? ›

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The best way to get started on completing your bachelor's is to search for a degree program by discipline (business, healthcare, etc.) and/or by a specific CSU campus by using the Search CSU Degrees database. If you're looking for fully-online degree programs, you can find programs at Cal State Online.

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