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More community colleges confer bachelor’s degrees


Vinson Doan earned a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management at South Seattle Community College in 2010 and now owns Just Crepes in downtown Seattle.

Photo: SSCC

​A growing number of community colleges are jumping on the baccalaureate bandwagon, but college leaders say the trend is not a threat to the associate degree or community college concept. 

“This isn’t about turning two-year colleges into four-year colleges,” said Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association (CCBA), a council affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges.

“People don’t understand that the bachelor’s degrees conferred by community colleges are not the degrees being offered by local universities,” she said.

In fact, community college-based baccalaureate programs benefit students, colleges, employers and higher education in general, Hagan added. 

Continuing a path 

When South Seattle Community College (SSCC) went through the accreditation process to offer a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, it had to make improvements to the library, advising services and other support mechanisms.

“That benefits all the associate programs and made the whole college stronger,” said Malcolm Grothe, associate vice chancellor for the Seattle Community College District and executive dean for hospitality management at SSCC.

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Giving students an opportunity to continue in higher education “debunks the myth that the associate degree is a dead end,” he said.

Most public universities in Washington don’t accept a two-year technical degree, and that meant people with associate degrees in culinary arts had no opportunities for educational advancement. Now, he said, they can pursue a bachelor of applied science (BAS) in hospitality management and seek a supervisory position in food or beverage management at a hotel, restaurant, cruise ship or private club, work for a trade association or start their own catering business. 

The program “has raised the college’s profile and improved our ability to connect with industry,” Grothe said.

Holland America, Sheraton and Compass Group are all represented on a college advisory committee and are generous in funding scholarships.

Meeting a need 

“It’s all about meeting local needs,” Hagan said. “The entry-level degree is still the associate degree for community colleges.”

“The idea is to make baccalaureate degrees accessible to those who want them. Nursing is a perfect example; community colleges already have the labs and equipment, so why shouldn’t they provide the second two years?”

Bachelor’s degrees are needed for certain professions, and often there isn’t a four-year college nearby that offers an appropriate program, so community colleges are stepping in. That allows students with jobs and families to continue their education while staying in their communities.

In North Dakota, Bismarck State College (BSC) started a BAS degree in energy management in 2008 because of industry demand, said Kari Knudson, vice president for the college’s National Energy Center of Excellence (see video, below). None of the four-year colleges in the region offer that program.

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The BAS degree is aimed people who want to be a supervisor or manager at an energy facility, including power plants, nuclear facilities, process plants or oil and gas facilities, Knudson said. The program covers such topics as energy economics, energy markets, safety, facility management, ethical issues and government regulations. Tuition is slightly higher, $232 per credit hour plus fees, compared to $220 for associate degree programs.

Courses are entirely online and are in eight-week blocks rather than the traditional 16 weeks. Only about 10 percent of the 250 students in the program are in North Dakota; the rest are all over the country. Most are adults already working in the field, although there are some traditional students who’ve just completed an associate degree.


Partners with four-year colleges

CCBA’s mission is a lot broader than just focusing on community colleges that confer baccalaureate degrees. The association helps community colleges work with four-year institutions to help graduates complete bachelor’s degrees through such efforts as improved articulation and online learning.

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Colleges that are members of CCBA’s Distance Learning Alliance work with one of the association’s five online university partners—Walden University, University of Maryland University College, Western Governors University, Excelsior College and National American University—to facilitate pathways leading to bachelor’s degrees.

CCBA also supports 2+2 programs, a form of articulation in which all the courses a student takes at a community college are matched with a university’s requirements. That allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree in two years, with all of the community college courses they take counting toward the degree.

About half of the nation’s community colleges have some sort of “university center,” a dedicated place on campus where students can work on a baccalaureate degree, Hagan said.

Florida leads the pack

According to Hagan, 52 community colleges confer baccalaureate degrees, mostly in applied technology or science. Twenty states allow community colleges to confer baccalaureates but not all of the colleges in those states do so.

Florida is the most active state in this trend. Twenty-four of its 28 associate degree-granting institutions are authorized to confer bachelor’s degrees since the state allowed community colleges to do so in 2001. St. Petersburg College (SPC) offers the most, with 25.

Together, Florida’s two-year institutions have more than 168 baccalaureate programs, most of them in management and supervision, education, nursing and allied health fields. A wide variety of other degrees are also offered, including, for example, criminal justice at Indian River State College, industrial biotechnology at Santa Fe College and orthotics and prosthetics at SPC.

Enrollment in these programs has been growing, with more than 10,000 students currently enrolled, said Carrie Henderson, spokesperson for the Florida College System. Still, that’s only 5 percent of community college enrollment statewide, she said.

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To add a baccalaureate program in Florida, colleges require approval from their board of trustees and from the state board of education. Two-year colleges set their own admission requirements and are encouraged to work with state universities and private colleges to ensure they are not duplicating existing programs. 

Four-year institutions in Florida can object to a community college’s request to add a baccalaureate program, and that has happened four times during the past two years, Henderson said. In all of those cases, the state board overruled the objection and approved the college’s request.

An impetus to earn a degree

In Washington, community colleges have about 30 or 40 baccalaureate programs, with new ones added every year. In 2007, the state legislature agreed to let four community colleges start baccalaureate programs, including a bachelor of science in nursing at Olympic College, a BAS in applied management at Peninsula College and a BAS in radiology and imaging sciences at Bellevue College, as well as the hospitality BAS at SSCC. A few years later, the state allowed all community colleges to confer bachelor degrees.

The first four programs had completion and graduation rates of 80 to 90 percent, Grothe said. And although there is no confirming data yet, he believes baccalaureate programs are contributing to higher graduation rates for students in two-year programs as they realize they’ll need an associate degree to continue to the next level.

The dual mission of community colleges

SSCC added baccalaureate programs in behavioral science, building sustainability management, dental hygiene and several health fields. This fall, the college launched a baccalaureate program in professional technical teacher education and plans to add more. Still, only about 100 SSCC students are in baccalaureate programs, compared to a total enrollment of nearly 6,400.

Grothe noted that some fields, such as dental hygiene, already require more than the 90 credits it generally takes for an associate degree, so it doesn’t take much more to earn a BAS.

Slow and steady

At South Texas College (STC), about 400 to 500 students are enrolled in bachelor degree programs. STC has conferred 586 baccalaureates since starting its first one—in technology management—in 2005, said Ali Esmaeili, dean of math, science and bachelor programs.

STC is authorized to offer up to five baccalaureate degrees, which cannot duplicate existing programs in nearby universities.

A BAS in computer information technology was added in 2008, followed by medical and health sciences management in 2011. In January, a competency-based BAS in applied science in organizational leadership will be launched. After that, STC is considering a bachelor’s degree in public safety and homeland security.

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The courses in each program are a mix of traditional, online and hybrid formats. Most courses are in the evening or Saturdays to make them more convenient for working adults.

Before launching any applied program, STC surveys local employers, seeks input from advisory committees, and convenes experts from the field for a brainstorming session to identify required skills and knowledge. Faculty use that information to develop the curriculum.

Allowing a community college to confer bachelor’s degrees “makes it more comprehensive and better able to respond to the needs of business and industry in the region,” Esmaeili said.