(Credit: Andre Hunter via Unsplash)

Contested community college degree programs help fill job training gaps, ease student debt

Community colleges have historically existed to help fill gaps in professions and jobs lacking enough workers to meet industry demands. Today, community colleges have evolved to become a second chance at education for Americans who lack financial resources for pricey four-year university tuition or have delayed college to prioritize family or caregiving. 

A new law piloting a statewide baccalaureate degree program, however, could transform a community college’s second chance into a first one. Though widely celebrated, the legislation has been met with protests and objections from the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) school systems.

AB 927, passed in 2021, expanded a pilot program that created 15 bachelor’s degree program offerings at community colleges across the state. A 2015 law planned to sunset the programs in 2024, but AB 927 made them permanent. AB 927 also gave the state’s 116 community colleges the opportunity to institutionalize baccalaureate degree programs on a regular, permanent basis. Up to 30 new programs can be approved annually as long as they don’t duplicate existing programs of study at any UC or CSU campuses. 

Locator map of UC, CSU and community college campuses across California.
Sources: University of California System, California State University System, California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (Credit: AfroLA)

“This particular movement, and it is a movement because it’s expanding, focuses on workforce preparation degrees,” said Dr. Constance Carroll, President and CEO of the California Community Colleges Baccalaureate Association (CCCBA). It’s not the goal of community colleges to become four-year institutions, but rather to fill a gap or need that isn’t fulfilled by four-year schools “where there are instances of need in workforce preparation,” Carroll explained.

Pilot programs expand

The creation of these new degree programs is the result of the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office’s extensive research and reviews on equal access and opportunity to education, changing qualifications for today’s workforce and affordability. Still, officials from the UC and CSU school systems have tried to quash the new community college degrees with claims of “program duplication.”

As the pandemic wanes, job opportunities in healthcare occupations are booming. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projected that the healthcare industry would see the most growth of any job sector from 2021-31. The digitization of medical records mandated by the Affordable Care Act, said Carroll, makes for “tremendous opportunities in the job market for people trained in” Health Information Management, a new degree offered at two colleges. “Only one university [University of La Verne in Los Angeles] offered a bachelor’s in Health Information Management,” said Carroll. But, because of the pilot program, this degree is now available in three geographically diverse areas across the state: L.A. and San Diego in SoCal and Redding in Northern California. And, with just a bachelor’s degree, program graduates can be supervisors or managers, increasing their earning potential for less money spent on school.

Sen. Marty Block (D-39), legislative author of the 2014 bill that first established the community college baccalaureate pilot program, said affordability was “an important consideration.” The total cost of any of these new bachelor’s degrees is $10,560 for all four years, more than $3,000 short to cover tuition and fees for only one academic year at UCLA. In-state tuition and fees for a full-time Cal State undergraduate to complete four years is just under $23,000.

Between fiscal years 2016 and 2017, 72% of students graduated without taking out any loans to finance their degrees. Eighty percent of graduates in FY 2016-17 found work in their field of study within three months after graduation in that same time period.

“And, [these graduates are] successful,” said Carroll. “The employers value the degrees and preparation very highly.

Eduardo Sebastian Paz, who graduated from Santa Monica College last year with a bachelor’s in Interaction Design, attests to this. Even though he didn’t receive full financial aid for his entire program, Paz feels the program was well worth the investment. His freelance clients started asking for more robust graphic design services in addition to IT support. “A lot of them started having needs like, ‘Oh, I need a website. I need business cards. I need all this stuff,’ that I knew how to do because of my degree. Now, it’s like a plus that I can offer to my clients.”

Eduardo Sebastian Paz graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Interaction Design from Santa Monica College in 2022. Paz was part of the program’s second cohort of students. (Credit: Ryan Holman)

Paz said that his degree—a mix of IT and design skills—helped him land a design internship at Snapchat and a scholarship to a highly-competitive graduate summer session at Stanford. He also saw his freelance business grow because his new skills allowed him to offer more services.

State universities put up a fight 

The first application cycle for new degree program proposals was in January 2022. Initially, five of the nine proposals faced objections from either CSU or UC campuses. Community college leaders were able to address most concerns, and the UCs ultimately dropped all their objections after “a deeper analysis of the program content was conducted,” said Melissa Villarin, CCCCO’s Public Information Officer. Two programs, including one at Feather River College, are still facing opposition from CSU faculty members. 

Feather River College officials were thrilled to see their Equine and Ranch Management bachelor’s degree made permanent. So, shortly after AB 927 was signed into law, they applied for a second bachelor’s degree. This program, in Ecosystem Restoration and Applied Fire Management, was spurred by the devastation caused in five counties by the Dixie Fire in 2021.

The fire was “200,000 acres larger than the state of Rhode Island,” Kevin Trutna, Feather River College Superintendent and President, told AfroLA in an interview. “And, that was in our backyard. For three months, I could see flames…circling around our campus.”  

More than 1 million acres of forest burned in the state’s second-largest wildfire ever. Sixty percent of the Feather River Watershed was destroyed, said Trutna. “So, instead of sitting [around], let’s train people to do controlled burns. We want to do forest thinning, we want to replant trees and do reforestation from the burned areas,” Trutna said. That’s why the degree is so specifically called Ecosystem Restoration and Applied Fire Management. 

Moreover, this isn’t just a local need; it’s a regional need, he explained. “We have the Forest Service and CalFire saying that there’s a desperate demand for trained individuals,” said Trutna. 

Feather River’s fire management program is delayed because CSU claims that it’s duplicative of their own. 

California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt is currently admitting students for a similar program to be launched in fall 2023. And, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo has a graduate program in Fire Protection Engineering that teaches fire suppression. These two Cal Poly programs—one yet to begin classes and the other offered only as a master’s degree or graduate certificate—were the basis for Cal State’s objections to Feather River’s fire management degree proposal. “They’re saying it’s a duplicate program,” but our program has a “different focus,” said Trutna. And, it’s in a different location.

Cal Poly Humboldt’s campus is in a coastal redwood area of northwest California. By contrast, Feather River is in the dry High Sierras to the east. “We’re closer to Reno than we are to Chico or Sacramento,” said Trutna. “[They are] completely different ecosystems.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s strategic fire plan calls for using prescribed fires, or controlled burns, on 400,000 acres of state, federal, tribal and local lands in California annually to build forests’ resiliency by 2025. That’s just two and a half years away, said Trutna. From 2019 to 2021, roughly 120,000 acres were treated with prescribed fire, reported CapRadio.

“So, even if [Cal Poly Humboldt, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Feather River’s] programs were packed and [graduated] everybody…we would not produce enough people to go and do these controlled burns,” Trutna explained. “The workforce need is just beyond the scope of anything that we can turn out.”

A murky process and an issue of equity

Dr. Aisha Lowe, a vice-chancellor with the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) acknowledges the flaws and limitations of the current review process in place. The first application cycle for new programs under AB 927 was announced early last year, said Lowe. The CCCCO had strict deadlines they were trying to meet while building infrastructure policies and processes from scratch. “So, that first cycle has gone longer…and has been more difficult than intended because we were trying to build the plane while flying it,” explained Lowe.

There was also a lack of clarity and agreement on what counted as program duplication with four-year institutions. “The goal is to get to a place with our four-year partners where we have agreed upon criteria for duplication, definitions of what duplication is and what level of duplication evidence is needed,” said Lowe. “A rubric that we can make use of to guide and lead the duplication objections process” will, ideally, make the process simpler and more streamlined. 

Yet, according to Foothill-De Anza Community College District Chancellor Judy Miner, concerns of duplication raised by Cal State are not accidental. 

“Our students have just been released from jail. They come from the foster care system,” Miner said. “They’re victims of domestic violence. They may be dealing with gender reassignment challenges.”

Miner explained that many community college students are place-bound. “Mom and Dad are not going to pay for them to go to some parts of the state. They have to live at home. They have to work,” she said. “That’s the reality of our population.”   

“Think about the history of racism in this country, around needing to have somebody to look down on,” she said. According to California Community Colleges’ 2021 State of the System report, 70% of community college students are people of color; 64% are “economically disadvantaged.” “And so [there’s] the sense of, ‘Well, you go ahead and take care of them and their remedial needs.’” 

That’s where community colleges come in. From students who are place-bound to those not meeting proficiency on standardized tests, community colleges are there to “meet you where you are,” said Miner. “If you need five years with us, we’re going to give you five years.” Providing flexibility, support services and affordability for communities who need it the most are the mission and goal of community colleges. “So it’s a real difference, I think, in culture, values and tradition,” Miner elaborated, contrasting the experience of a traditional four-year university.

MIner also finds the objections from Cal State administrators ironic because “every one of our baccalaureate programs have letters of support from the local CSU,” said Miner. “They’re letting people from other campuses that aren’t even close to the colleges, protest… on the basis that they just [don’t] believe that community colleges should offer baccalaureate degrees.”

What’s more, Miner said, CSU has used the same argument they’re using to oppose community colleges’ baccalaureate degree programs to defend themselves against the University of California back in 2005. “They are fighting with UC regarding variability to offer doctorates,” said Miner, and they’ve used the very same language that community colleges have presented to them about offering baccalaureate programs that would never be a part of CSU’s offerings. “So you actually use our language in saying to UC, ‘We are not duplicating you, we are meeting an unmet need that you would never, as a system, approach.’”

What happens next?

It’s important to note that, with or without CSU and UC officials’ green light, proposed programs can still be approved.

The authority to approve new degree programs rests with the California Community Colleges Board of Governors (CCCBG), said Lowe. AB 927 only requires that the chancellor’s office consult and take in the necessary information received and weigh it fairly, she explained. “But, ultimately, the Board of Governors can approve.” However, that’s a route the chancellor’s office is reluctant to take. “We would prefer to actually come to amicable solutions, and not contentious conclusions,” said Lowe. 

AfroLA contacted CCCBG to inquire why President Amy Costa has yet to give final approval for Feather River’s stalled degree proposal. Costa’s office replied with a YouTube recording of a Jan. 23 CCCBG meeting. During the meeting, however, Costa does not vocalize a definitive position on the fate of the proposal.

Dips in CSU enrollment may influence what happens next. “We’re in a context where all systems of higher education are suffering declining enrollment,” Carroll said. In fact, “unprecedented” enrollment declines at Cal State have officials “‘deeply” concerned and could undermine financial operations across 23 campus systems, according to a January report from EdSource. With a 7% shortfall in 2022-23 enrollment for in-state students, CSU’s interim chancellor warned that “should this enrollment decline become sustained it will present a fundamental and significant threat to our missions, to the fundamental viability of our universities and the future of the communities we serve.” Since the 2018-19 school year, Cal State's 23 campuses have lost more than 23,000 students, according to CSU data.

Carroll has proposed reintroducing the California Postsecondary Education Commission, ended in 2011, as a possible resolution. “They would always be an objective party to review issues of concern that cross the lines between California community colleges, the CSU and UC systems,” she said. 

But Feather River’s President Trutna doesn’t particularly like the idea of having a third party deciding what a community college like his offers. “We do have a process with our chancellor’s office. [But,] because the Cal States have exerted their political pressure, we are not following the [review] process,” he Trutna. 

These new degree programs provide a pathway to upward financial mobility for more students looking for high-paying jobs in an uncertain economy. They also bridge inequity gaps in education that exist, for example, students in rural communities, whose only preferred degree-offering school may be hundreds of miles away.

“Most people don’t even know where our county is,” said Trutna. “So, you don’t want an educational policy from the urban areas [affecting] our programs,” because their lived experiences and needs are different. 

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