California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, created in 1960 and largely considered a lofty goal in its entirety, may become a victim of further erosion if California decides to follow the evolving community college role in a number of other states. Community colleges in a growing number of states, including Michigan and Florida, now offer bachelor’s degrees, and California with its huge two-year college system, may soon join their lead.
The process to implement such radical change to California’s classic order of higher education has numerous hurdles to clear; the process has already started and will surely grab attention within the state and elsewhere.
More than 20 states now let community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees to varying extents. Michigan recently joined in with a new law that allows the state’s community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in a limited amount of technical fields.
This is not an idea that everyone supports, and could prove a barrier to approval in California. When community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees, nearby public universities are inclined to resent the resulting competition for students and dwindling state funding. An additional concern for community college leaders and some faculty members is that as two-year colleges turn into four-year institutions, they may lose sight of their original core intention of delivering job training to local students, who often are low-income residents.
California’s community college system, the largest in the nation, enrolls 2.4 million students, a whopping one in four community college students nationwide. If state community colleges moved to offer four-year degrees, that would create a challenge to the traditional limits the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education determined at the start. The three tiers of the state’s public higher education – the community colleges, California State University, and University of California systems – historically serve distinct purposes, designed that way to eliminate redundancy within the three systems. California community colleges are open-admission and transfer institutions, with major student flow into the two state university systems.
Over time though the Master Plan has been hit by a series of state inadequate funding issues causing community colleges to turn away as many as 600,000 students in recent years. Cal State too has veered off its original boundaries and has begun to award doctoral degrees, originally awarded solely by the UC system. California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, once the valued promise for educational opportunity and hope for the state, has been unable to adequately fund its colleges and adhere to its original mission. Consequently, the plan has proven to be rather malleable as it bends with the times and each system’s needs.
“There’s very little real commitment to the Master Plan,” said Patrick Callan, director of National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Callan lamented, “The community colleges haven’t been able to meet their basic mission.”
If granted the authority to offer bachelor’s degrees, community colleges would not issue the degrees within all disciplines of study. The 16-member committee, created by community college chancellor Brice Harris to meet to review and decide whether the state’s 112 community colleges should in fact be given authority to offer four-year degrees, is just considering allowing “applied” baccalaureates in nursing and specific technical fields, such as automotive or information technology.
Jobs in these areas are changing, and many employers now require applicants to hold bachelor’s degrees in fields such as nursing. “We need to adapt our higher education systems to our advancing competencies,” said Bill Scroggins, president and CEO of Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut Creek. Scroggins proved a little humor could go a long way when it comes to serious issues in education. “We’re not asking for the Full Monty” he said when he called the committee’s decision-making goal, “targeted, limited, and scripted.”
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