Bachelor’s Degrees at Community Colleges?

Four presidents of North Carolina community colleges took the rest of the community college system by surprise last week. Three of them appeared before the legislature’s House Study Committee on Education Innovation to ask for a legislative study about adding four-year bachelor’s degrees to their mission.

The degrees proposed were “applied baccalaureate degrees,” which the presidents distinguished from traditional baccalaureate degrees in that they are based on employers’ needs. They include degrees in paralegal studies, fire science, and digital media, among others.

The presentation, available on the committee’s website, said that other states have such programs, and claimed that they would increase college “affordability and accessibility” while saving taxpayers money. In particular, the presentation argued that North Carolina has a compelling need for a bachelor of science degree in nursing. It also made reference to the “closing the skills gap” initiative, which Governor Pat McCrory has championed to connect graduates with employers. The group also claimed the plan would save students approximately $3,000 (presumably per year) and save the state approximately $20,000 per student.

The proposal rocked the community college establishment. On Friday, two days after the legislative committee meeting, the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents expressed disapproval at the monthly state board meeting. Linwood Powell, chair of the board, condemned the decision to go before the committee because the presidents had short-circuited the usual process for proposing changes. “It is not about what is right or wrong in offering a four-year degree—it is all about the process.”

Powell called for an apology from the four presidents, joking that if one is not forthcoming, the presidents could use benefit from an “applied bachelor’s degree in leadership and human relations” themselves. Powell said, “Hopefully, all of this came about because of a mistake in judgment.”

The legislative committee did not adopt the proposal, so the bid is dead for now. Still, the move is a startling signal that North Carolina could join a controversial national trend. Twenty-two states now allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, but this is the first sign that such a proposal has been gestating in North Carolina.

The proponents have some clout, too. The group includes the presidents of the state’s two largest two-year institutions, Dr. Tony Zeiss of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte and Dr. Stephen Scott, president of Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh. The third presenter last week was Dr. Kandi Deitemeyer, president of the College of the Albemarle, which has four campuses in the northeastern part of the state. Dr. John Dempsey, president of Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, did not attend the Wednesday presentation, but he was involved in the plan, according to a spokesperson for the statewide community college network.

Rep. Craig Horn, co-chair of the House’s education innovation committee, said that he and his co-chair, Rep. Susan Martin, liked the idea enough to put it on the agenda. “I think it’s a good subject for study,” he told the Pope Center, adding, “Any idea is fair game for an innovations committee.” However, the committee did not move forward with it. “I asked for an amendment resolution and none came,” he said.

While he supports the idea of saving money by encouraging students to earn bachelor’s degrees without living on campus and to get jobs “right there in their own community,” Horn has two reservations.

“One is I don’t want to see our colleges and universities competing with our community colleges,” Horn said, even though he recognizes that competition generally drives down costs. Second, Horn is concerned about the quality of instructors at community colleges. “Universities unto themselves tend to attract high-demand instructors,” he said.

“I think all these things can be worked out,” Horn continued. He generally favors the idea, at least for further consideration, and contrasted the low cost of education at community colleges with higher costs at UNC schools.

Linda Weiner, the community college system’s vice president for engagement and strategic innovation, told the Pope Center that the group’s actions were “somewhat unheard of,” and that traditionally when people introduce topics of major policy change, they bring it up before the board, the presidents association, the trustees association, or staff in the system office. “Our first knowledge was when the agenda came out,” one week before the presentation, Weiner said.

Weiner mentioned that the topic of four-year bachelor’s degrees has never been brought up before the full board. However, she said, “It’s not the topic that’s the issue; the topic, whether it’s good or bad, is not the question.” She added, “No one’s trying to squelch the discussion.”

Dr. Scott Ralls, the president of the community college system, said during the board meeting, “Issues about ways we do things are oftentimes more important than what we do.”

President Zeiss declined through his assistant to comment for this story. President Dempsey was on vacation and could not respond immediately. The other presidents involved did not return calls in time for publication.

If the legislature does allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees—and Rep. Horn said the issue would likely come up again—it will be a significant step. Michigan and Florida have attracted national attention, positive and negative, for adopting four-year degrees. California’s huge system has also made repeated attempts to do so.

The number of states allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees has almost doubled in less than a decade. North Carolina’s adoption would add the nation’s third-largest system—at 58 colleges—to the growing list.

The national debate centers on a couple of major objections. Colleges and universities worry about competition from community colleges, especially in an era of flattening enrollment in four-year schools. After several attempts, supporters got Colorado to adopt its new lawallowing bachelor’s degrees by convincing four-year schools that the community colleges’ bachelor of applied science degrees—applied baccalaureate degrees—would not encroach on the traditional degree offerings at four-year colleges.

Another concern is mission creep. Community colleges have traditionally provided cheap vocational and technical education. Offering four-year degrees is not necessarily out of line with that mission, but it is easy to imagine a slippery slope whereby colleges begin offering more expensive degrees, and degrees that do not match local students with local jobs.

If community colleges want the proposed extension of their mission, they may have a sympathetic state government on their side—especially if the education innovation committee presentation was right about the potential savings for students and the state. Governor Pat McCrory praised community colleges recently and offered a new plan to reward them for saving money. Earlier this month, he announced that he will reinvest $16.8 million into community colleges after they saved that money by making their remedial programs more efficient.

On the other hand, the University of North Carolina has yet to comment on the issue. Giving four-year degrees to community colleges could have a major impact on many UNC schools, and we can expect plenty of discussion if the proposal moves forward.