Designing the path to a bachelor’s degree through community college


Justin Smock had started along a well-trodden path. Like many others, he graduated from high school and went straight to community college to earn an associate degree. He felt a tug toward sign language interpretation and went back to school to earn a Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf certification. While he thought about pursuing his bachelor’s degree – he even applied to the University of Washington – he really didn’t see the need.

Then the rules and Justin’s path changed. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf started requiring bachelor’s degrees for interpreter certification, and Justin knew it was time to return to college. But he still didn’t know what program to choose, particularly while working, married and parenting his two little girls.

“I get inspired spending time with my kids,” he told us, “and I knew that I would have to give some of that up.”

That’s when Justin heard about the new Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) in Applied Management at Skagit Valley College (Washington) and its faculty champion Sunaina Virendra.

“I can’t express how much she has changed my life,” he said.

Filling a void

Sunaina chose to create the BAS in Applied Management because the program should help support the local economy. In rural areas, it can be difficult for small business owners to find qualified young people for them to pass their businesses onto. These businesses are integral to the community and their continued existence is vital. This type of program can train people to be effective business proprietors while staying in the community.

The BAS in Applied Management is part of a larger trend of community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees growing across the country. While 23 states grant their community colleges the authority to award bachelor’s degrees, only Washington and Florida have done it at scale.

However, interest is growing. Since 2018, six states have passed legislation and are quickly building degree programs. For example, Wyoming just passed a law authorizing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in 2019. Since then, Central Wyoming College and Laramie County Community College have launched three programs between them.

One thing that makes community colleges like Skagit Valley well-suited to offer career-focused bachelor’s degrees is their experience with working adult learners, who make up a much larger share of the student population than in traditional four-year colleges and universities. The lives of adult students are often very different from a recent high school graduate heading off to a university campus for full-time study. Many are parents –  one in four community college students have children – and they are older –  the average age is 29. Which means they often have considerable work experience and, in some cases, negative experiences with higher education when they were younger.

As degree requirements rise in many occupational fields, community college bachelor’s degree programs can provide a learning environment that works well for the working adults who would benefit from additional education.

Three key elements

At Skagit Valley, the BAS in Applied Management integrates three key innovations that community colleges have pioneered to help adult learners succeed and embed equity and awareness of bias in each course in the program. First, faculty teach all general education through a co-instruction model pioneered in Washington through its innovative Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program. This pairs general education subject matter experts with faculty who have hands-on experience in management and business. The partnership ensures that the curriculum and its delivery continually relate to real-life application in management and business.

One student said “I felt like I was tapping into a part of my brain that I had never been able to before, and I felt so empowered. All the connections being made … I’m understanding topics that I haven’t been able to before and I feel myself being drawn in to learning.”

Next, the program has a hybrid design. This means students work independently online and in groups, but every Friday they come together all day for classroom-based activities and discussion.

One graduate told us, “I have tried online programs, and I couldn’t stay motivated. I have tried in-person programs, and I couldn’t handle the time commitment with work. This mix kept me motivated and allowed me to work on my own schedule.”

For the students we spoke to, this structure was key to their success.

Another central design element of the program is its cohort model and a focus on building a supportive and trusting learning environment. All participants go through the program at the same pace, taking the same courses. Justin told us the cohort was wonderful and “the connections and friendships I made with very different people will be lifelong.”

One of the most rewarding parts of the program for him was watching people grow in these relationships. Everyone in the cohort knew that they could rely on its members for support and didn’t want to let other members down.

Another student said, “The more I go out of my comfort zone, the bigger my comfort zone gets.”

Adapting and advancing

The learning environment developed through the cohort model also creates an environment where it is possible to have the often uncomfortable and vulnerable conversations around equity and bias. The trust and support provide the space and the confidence for each participant, including faculty, to challenge themselves and their social justice beliefs and practices.

One graduate said, “Even the most insignificant decisions, if based on bias, can result in inequality and potentially an irreversible cultural mindset within an organization. I realize this is a huge responsibility to be an equitable leader and the program has given me the skills to identify these inherent biases before decisions are made.”

When the pandemic hit this spring, Justin was starting the last quarter of the program. He was looking forward to being a part of the first class to represent the program at a graduation ceremony. Suddenly, everything was online.

“It sucks,” he told us. “It’s deflating, and it can be hard to stay motivated.”

But his cohort and Sunaina were there for him. For a while, after campus shut down, some cohort members independently continued to meet in coffee shops. When the stay at home order hit, they set up regular zoom study sessions. They shared weekly wins describing good things that had happened that week on Slack. They shared mental health resources with each other. And faculty offered grace and understanding while providing a lot of flexibility around deadlines.

It wasn’t the same, but the supportive environment helped Justin and the rest of the crew cross the finish line.

Skagit Valley isn’t alone in its strategies to provide supportive, flexible, holistic learning environments for adult students. Community colleges across the country are well-positioned to implement these innovative structures all the way through the bachelor’s degree. They know how to foster community. In many cases, it is in their name.

In June, Justin graduated. It wasn’t the way he had imagined his graduation would be, but the structure of his program helped him stick with it and complete his education against the odds. Now, with programs like the BAS in Applied Management, the path to a bachelor’s degree is a little bit smoother.

About the Author

Iris Palmer
is a senior advisor for higher education and workforce with the education policy program at New America.
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