New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Deborah Floyd on Community Colleges Offering Bachelor’s Degrees

In this installment of NEJHE‘s New Directions for Higher Education series, Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviews Deborah Floyd, professor of educational leadership at Florida Atlantic University, editor in chief of the Community College Journal of Research and Practice and author of the book, The Community College Baccalaureate: Emerging Trends and Policy Issues.

NEJHE launched the series in 2013 to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices. Click here to read previous installments of this series.

The context

More than 20 states now allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. Florida has been a trailblazer, with 14 community colleges currently authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees, and 12 already doing so.

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law a pilot program allowing some of California’s community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in fields not offered by the University of California and California State University systems. The pilot program is slated to begin by the 2017-18 academic year and run through to at least 2023. Community colleges will add an extra $84 per unit for baccalaureate coursework, allowing students to earn a bachelor’s degree for a lower price than the average at a four-year school in California.

“It’s cooking in several states, in many workforce related fields, but there’s a lot of debate and politics, and differing views on whether they’re still community colleges if they give baccalaureates,” according to Beth Hagan, executive director of the nonprofit Community College Baccalaureate Association.

For some states, efforts have been stalled. In Michigan, community colleges are seeking to offer baccalaureates in culinary arts, cement technology and nursing. According to the president of the Michigan Community College Association, “we need legislation to do it, and the legislation’s been introduced, but that’s as far as it’s gotten [because] the four-year universities in the state are very much opposed to the idea.”

Some critics have observed that community college baccalaureates will lead to low-quality degrees, take resources from needy students and drive up costs. Others assert that the “mission creep” represented by community colleges baccalaureates are unnecessary, and community colleges should continue to solely offer two-year degrees while preparing students for transfer to four-year institutions.

Some proponents of the community colleges offering bachelor’s degree argue that the baccalaureate option fits into the community college mission of serving the community. Others argue that the bachelor’s programs fulfill a need by providing four-year degrees to working people who lack the necessary resources. Still others contend that increasing the community college baccalaureate helps to meet increasing workforce needs and provide access to affordable higher education.

Unquestionably, community colleges play a major role in U.S. postsecondary education.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the nation’s 1,132 community colleges enroll nearly half of all undergraduates in the U.S.— more than 13 million students. These community colleges graduate up to 25% of all first-time, full-time students, compared with 59% at four-year institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Suggesting that the community college baccalaureate is yet another manifestation of the broad evolution of U.S. postsecondary education, Floyd offers her insights on how to prepare for this changing landscape, as colleges and universities converge toward a new synthesis.

The Interview

DiSalvio: Based on the findings of the National Center on Education and the Economy’s report, “What Does it Really Mean to be College and Work Ready,” some have concluded that a large fraction of our community college students graduate without the more sophisticated kinds of knowledge and skills they will need in the future. Are community colleges truly preparing the future American workforce?

Floyd: For some community colleges, “yes” and for others “no.” There is always room for improvement with preparing the workforce, especially as the needs and wants of the workforce constantly change. No doubt, there are hundreds of examples of community colleges in all states with exemplary programs of job training and workforce development. That said, I believe community colleges are in a transition period in their history, as missions evolve and expectations change. Historically, they began as junior colleges with a focus on feeding associate degree graduates to universities. Then, over a very robust period of their development, they assumed multiple missions including workforce development, developmental education, and really bringing alive open access to higher education. Today, some community colleges have expanded access even more by offering baccalaureate degrees and expanding degree partnerships. The landscape of higher education as a whole and the missions of community colleges especially continue to evolve.

Most community colleges have broad missions and strive to be “all things to all people.” In some of the literature, they’ve been called the “people’s colleges.” These broad-mission colleges run the risk of spreading themselves too thin. Open access, comprehensive community colleges have naturally taken an egalitarian approach; education of the masses is highly valued and understood as important for economic development. But they also run the risk of admitting students who may not know what they want to do with their lives, students who have aspirations and career goals that are not aligned with their preparation, and students who enroll only for job training without the need for a formal degree. Community colleges have opened their arms for the masses in American higher education and, as a result, reflect the diversity of wants and needs of the masses.

I think some published research is based on misunderstanding the mission of community colleges. When we examine how we measure success for community colleges, particularly in recent years, we see that success is often measured by associate degree completion, or in some cases, numbers of students who successfully transfer to universities. But I think that if we really look closely at the comprehensive mission of community colleges, we’ll conclude that it’s also important to embrace the role these institutions play in helping students determine what their career goals actually are, helping them vet out what they want to do, and then helping them remove barriers as these colleges advance them along their academic pathways. A key barrier to academic success is inadequate preparation for college-level studies. Most community colleges embrace remedial programs in English, writing and mathematics, along with study-skills programs, to assist students in catching up what he or she did not learn during high school, or in the case of nontraditional students, what one needs to relearn after long periods of absence from the classroom.

I’m a proponent of community colleges and the important roles they play in American higher education. I’ve spent most of my career working with and studying this unique sector, largely because I believe in their egalitarian mission and I value what they offer the higher education system as a whole. But it has always been troubling to observe that these colleges are too often measured by metrics that are more university-oriented and that do not fully reflect all of the outcomes of a community college education. Workforce development is an important component of a comprehensive community college and is underappreciated in measures of community college success when measured by traditional metrics. Community colleges spend a great deal of their energy and resources working with their local communities and delivering job-training programs. While these efforts might not carry the traditional credit label, community colleges nevertheless are continuing to fulfill their mission of preparing the workforce.

I think policymakers and taxpayers alike are justified in asking questions about the degree to which community colleges are preparing the future American workforce at local, state and national levels. With that, embracing effective ways of ensuring that resources are aligned to offer, sustain and measure effective workforce programs is an important consideration. Together with clear missions and expectations, revenue streams must be aligned to support these colleges and programs. In my opinion, community colleges have a darn good track record of making a difference in workforce training and development in their local communities, but to be truly effective, community college missions and expectations must be favorably aligned with adequate resources.

DiSalvio: California Gov. Brown recently signed into law a bill that will create a pilot program for 15 community colleges across the state to offer bachelor’s degrees in fields not offered by the University of California and California State University systems. More than 20 other states allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees and other states are considering community college baccalaureates. What do you make of this trend and do you think it will continue?

Floyd: This is certainly a watershed moment in higher education because from coast to coast, community colleges are now offering their own baccalaureate degrees. What some leaders are not aware of is that community colleges have a long history of partnering with universities to facilitate completion of baccalaureate degrees for community college graduates. What is new is that community colleges are now conferring their own baccalaureate degrees, often in select workforce fields. The question we have to ask is why? Why are they doing this?

For the most part, these community colleges are offering these programs to meet local workforce needs in select areas, mostly in applied fields. Almost every community college that has launched its own baccalaureate movement is doing so to meet local workforce needs. What’s important for all community colleges is to look to whether or not they are offering programs that are duplicating what’s already available.

The key reason baccalaureate degree programs are being offered at community colleges is “access” in ways that are meaningful to today’s learners … Access so that students may complete courses in programs at night or on weekends or in an accelerated format ….Access in fiscal ways because tuition is less costly for community college baccalaureate students than for university baccalaureate students ….Access in that the career focus of these new baccalaureate degrees are in areas that universities don’t offer locally, but that meet local workforce needs. And, these new programs often offer baccalaureate degree access for a more diverse population than that served by many traditional universities.

So, do I believe that this trend will continue? Yes. But faculty and leaders need to ask themselves “What is the motivation for community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees?” “Why are we doing this?” and “Why do we think this model is the right one at this time?” If we are affording community colleges the authority to confer baccalaureate degrees and we are doing so for the right reasons—which are to provide quality education and to meet our local workforce needs—then this change is probably consistent with the egalitarian mission of these colleges. Further, if bachelor’s degree–granting community colleges are increasing access to training and education that leads to a better-educated citizenry and better paying jobs, then this direction could certainly be viewed as consistent with the egalitarian focus of community colleges.

However, community colleges should be careful not to intentionally compete with state universities, especially when doing so would result in obvious duplication and waste of resources. Some community college board members, I’ve heard it said, believe that their institution needs to “grow up” to be a university eventually. While that may be a good thing in certain regional areas without a university and, as result, communities that are underserved, I do think that we need to be very, very cautious about the proliferation of offering a lot of baccalaureate degrees, along with spreading our resources very thin and duplicating our efforts unnecessarily, and acting in ways that are not strategic or beneficial for the system as a whole.

The institutions and states that plan strategically should look toward a number of effective options and models to increase baccalaureate attainment, especially articulation agreements and partnership models. But in some areas, the partnership models don’t work, because either the university does not offer the program at all, or the program is not offered in the format needed to serve the market demand. In programs such as specialized allied health, engineering, business technology and teaching, community colleges have proven to be the best local providers of these select workforce baccalaureate degree programs. Ideally, universities and community colleges should work collaboratively and strategically in collectively delivering relevant baccalaureate degree programs—and through a variety of models.

DiSalvio: Some critics worry that community college baccalaureates will drive up costs, take resources from needy students and lead to low-quality degrees. Are there valid reasons why community colleges should stick with the important work they do by offering two-year degrees and preparing students for transfer to four-year schools?

Floyd: Indeed, some community college leaders have decided not to expand their offerings beyond associate degrees, but rather to focus on strengthening articulation and transfer programs with universities. But increasingly, many community colleges have felt pressure to offer workforce programs locally in accessible and affordable ways. No doubt, community colleges should do what they do well, whether it’s offering associate degrees, certificates, articulating those associate degrees with a university or offering select baccalaureate degree programs. There are valid reasons why a community college may choose not to expand into baccalaureate degree offerings. Certainly, having available resources plays an important deciding role. Duplication of offerings is another factor. Some community college leaders have taken the approach that the best way for them to increase baccalaureate attainment is to strengthen partnerships with universities and thus, provide the “net effect” of a baccalaureate as a result.

I think that the critics’ have a valid concern about these new baccalaureate degree programs taking resources away from other community college academic programs. To that, I have to say that anybody who has served in administration or leadership of a college or university knows that some programs need to die a natural death to allow for new programs. Programs that are ineffective or no longer meet the needs of the local community should be phased out or changed. Some community colleges have done this well–by limiting or eliminating certain workforce development programs in job markets that are saturated with similarly trained applicants for jobs in the same field.

Take for example, the field of dental hygiene. If there is a need for dental hygienists in a rural area, you want to offer the program over a limited period of time and not saturate the market by graduating too many dental hygienists and then devaluing this field of good-paying jobs. In rural areas especially, some programs need to die (or move to other areas in the state) before the market is saturated, with new programs replacing them.

Higher education leaders and policymakers who value strategically planned pathways for education should consider the pathways for graduates of community college baccalaureate degree programs. As bachelor’s degree attainment increases, the next logical step along the pathway of credentialing is master’s degree attainment. Thought must be given to how these degrees will articulate with master’s programs. I think a potential criticism of community college baccalaureate degrees is that they are more often designed as “terminal” degrees without consideration for students who may eventually want to pursue a master’s degree.

A number of questions should be asked in that regard. For example, are students informed when they enter community college baccalaureate degree programs about their options for graduate school upon graduation?

Given that many community college baccalaureate degree programs are in workforce development fields, are there existing barriers or bias that might work against these students when applying to graduate school? Will the success of these baccalaureate degrees be solely determined by their value in the local workforce, or will the success of these degrees also be determined by the success along the academic pathway toward graduate education?

To illustrate, will a community college bachelor’s degree in supervision and management be viewed by university graduate faculty as adequate preparation for entry into an MBA program? Moreover, if admitted, will that student successfully matriculate?

These are some of the important questions that need to be asked about the options for community college baccalaureate degree graduates. So I think that community college measures of graduation rates, transfer rates to four-year universities, and ultimately, baccalaureate graduation rates for these students, should be examined. Additionally, the academic pathway and options beyond the baccalaureate, especially graduate school options, should be considered.

DiSalvio: Community college baccalaureates challenge the higher education hierarchy’s boundaries between the research mission of universities, the teaching mission of colleges and the open admissions of community colleges. How do you think this new paradigm will affect the higher education landscape?

Floyd: I think this is a terrific time for all sectors of higher education to fine-tune their missions. This time of change affords universities an opportunity to re-assess their missions and what emphasis they need to be placing on research and graduate education.

Teacher education is a prime example. Many of these community colleges are offering their own bachelor’s degree programs in teacher education. For them, teacher education is often viewed as workforce development education since local graduates can enter the workforce as teachers in well-paying professional jobs. But what are the options for these baccalaureate-credentialed teachers when they want to continue along the pathway and obtain a master’s degree? And what about a student who wants a baccalaureate teaching degree, but in a niche area that focuses on research? This is an excellent time for university colleges of education to carefully assess what the future holds for their teacher-education programs, especially in states where community colleges are offering teacher-education baccalaureates. Should university colleges of education become more focused on graduate education and work with community colleges on transitioning their baccalaureate recipients to university graduate programs? Should university teacher-education programs focus more on preparing professors to teach in colleges and universities, rather than become faculty in K-12 schools? Or, if university education colleges continue to offer undergraduate teacher education programs, should they shift their emphasis to ensure their programs are unique and different from others in the area? Perhaps university undergraduate teacher-education programs should be offered in ways that emphasize the research mission of the university in contrast to the practical emphasis of community college teacher-education programs.

I think this is a wonderful time of many opportunities for higher education to re-define and shape our landscape, our missions, our goals, purposes, plans and actions. We can and should work together across sectors so that we all can assume our roles with excellence. We should collaborate where we need to partner and then specialize in certain areas where it’s best for our communities, for our states and for the nation as a whole.

DiSalvio: How should academic leaders in higher education and policymakers prepare for this changing landscape as colleges and universities of all kinds feel their way towards a synthesis?

Floyd: I am a big believer in listening and working to understand others. I believe that community colleges, proprietary colleges, private and public universities all need to understand one another more. I think that academic leaders and policymakers sometimes get at odds because we don’t understand each other. So I would seek to understand first, and learn and to feel our way to a synthesis where we might have some commonalities and where we could work together.

This is also an opportunity for leaders at all levels to look at what each sector wants to emphasize in the future. So university trustees and other leaders may, for example, want to learn more about the whole landscape of higher education, what this baccalaureate movement means within their state or in their community, and to utilize that knowledge to make that university a better institution by honing in on fine tuning its mission in the future. The same is true for community college trustees and leaders. This is a terrific time for higher education leaders and policymakers to strategically align our plans and systems in ways that ensure they address current and future needs and expectations for an educated citizenry.

Past installments

of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing:


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