Baccalaureates at community colleges are making a difference

Students in Mira Costa College’s biomanufacturing baccalaureate program took a bioprocess monitoring and control course this spring to learn how control systems maintain variables like temperature and pH to create stable environments for living cells in biomanufacturing. (Photo: Mira Costa College)

This summer, Esther Nair is filled with a sense of accomplishment. She earned a baccalaureate from Mira Costa College’s biomanufacturing program in May and has what she considers “the best job” as a quality analyst with Native Microbials, Inc., where she began full-time work last November.

“All my dreams came true. We are no longer on medical. No food stamps. It’s definitely a change,” Nair said.

After five years of squeezing time with her children around college courses, part-time jobs and homework, Nair said in a recent interview that she’s happy to focus on her children, pay her family’s expenses without government assistance and deal with “better challenges.”

“I’m excited to go to work and then leave work behind and be present with my family. And it’s really thanks to Mira Costa and the program. I’m really so appreciative to the faculty, the staff, the legal personnel [who passed community college baccalaureate legislation]… It made all the difference in my life and my kids,” she said.

Nair was one 30 students in the third cohort of Mira Costa’s biomanufacturing program. Seventy-four students altogether have completed the upper-division of the bachelor of science program for a 95% overall success rate for the first three cohorts. Most of the students in the program are from populations historically underrepresented in STEM fields.

Three-quarters of program graduates are employed before they walk across the stage at commencement, said Michael Fino, Mira Costa dean of math and sciences.

“The outcomes are really incredible,” he noted.

Gaining momentum

Twenty-four states now have legislation that allows community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees, according to Angela M. Kersenbrock, president of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, which promotes access to community college bachelor’s degrees as a way to close racial, ethnic and economic gaps. It is an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Recent bipartisan support for community college baccalaureate programs has added momentum to a two-decade effort that may be on the cusp of achieving critical mass, Kersenbrock said.

  • In Texas, legislation approved in June allows each of the state’s community colleges to offer up to five baccalaureate programs.
  • In May, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation that gives Arizona community colleges permission to offer bachelor’s degrees.
  • Washington state legislators in April added bachelor of science degrees in computer science to the long list of applied baccalaureate degrees that community and technical colleges can offer.
  • Community colleges throughout Ohio are offering baccalaureates that address regional workforce niches. (See sidebar). In Ohio’s recent state budget bill, a provision was included that specifically authorized community colleges to offer the bachelor’s degree in nursing. (See commentary).
  • And in Illinois, legislators are considering allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureates for early childcare teachers, who are in short supply.

The most far-reaching legislation is California Assembly Bill 927. It would allow all 116 community colleges in California to add baccalaureates in disciplines with high, unmet employer needs. The legislation would also allow the 15 community colleges that have been pilot testing baccalaureates to continue their programs indefinitely.

The version of the legislation approved by the California Senate this month would cap statewide expansion to 30 baccalaureate programs per academic year, and it would limit the number of baccalaureate programs offered by a community college district to 25% of the total number of associate degree programs offered by the district.

Expanding relationships

Kersenbrock sees baccalaureates at community colleges as an expansion of their economic development missions, and anticipates that tension with the university sector will lessen as overall baccalaureate attainment rates go up. The biomanufacturing program at Mira Costa is an example of exemplary student and community outcomes.  

Aside from the high graduation and employment rate, Fino said that the biomanufacturing bachelor’s degree has improved the college’s connection with biomanufacturers and attracted students to the college’s associate degree programs.

“There’s no doubt that our engagement, and relationship and interest with industry changed with this bachelor’s degree … just the general interest in our program and knowledge, skills and abilities of the students coming out of it is at a whole different level that it was before,” he said. 

Barbara Juncosa, chair of the biotechnology department, said “employers are seeing the value of our students in terms of their industry-applicable knowledge compared to students who might just have a biology or chemistry degree, which is very heavy on theory but not so much on the practical nature of a biomanufactuing operation.”

The college now has formal mentoring programs with local biotech companies that are also starting to offer internships and scholarships for Mira Costa students.

Juncosa said the baccalaureate program has sparked interest in the college’s biotechnology associate degree.

“We’re getting a lot more students coming in the door curious because they’ve heard about this bachelor’s degree and they’re looking for some exposure,” she said. “I would say that it really kind of helped to grow our lower-division program as well, and increased students’ interest.”

Although program marketing plans were set aside while faculty and staff devoted their attention to delivering courses exclusively online in 2020 and then with reconfigured labs, Covid and biotechnology’s role vaccine development have raised interest in biomanufacturing careers.

Working in tandem

As a biotechnology instructor, Fino wrote Mira Costa’s biomanufacturing baccalaureate curriculum in response to companies’ requests for technicians with higher-level skills than could be taught in the associate degree program. As part of the process to gain state approval for the biomanufacturing degree, Fino met with faculty and administrators at the California State University, San Marcos because Mira Costa is in its service area. They agreed that Mira Costa’s biomanufacturing degree would be different than the biotechnology bachelor’s degree it offered.

The letter of support UC-San Marcos provided “was really important for us,” Fino said. And now, six years after that meeting, Mira Costa biomanufacturing graduates are beginning to enroll in UC-San Marcos’s biotechnology master’s degree program.

Fino’s 2021 doctoral dissertation, titled “STEM Equity: Access and Success in a Novel Community College Baccalaureate,” looked at the outcomes of the program’s first cohort of 22 students. Nineteen students were from underrepresented populations. One hundred percent of the cohort finished the program in three years.

For the qualitative aspect of the study for his Ph.D. from San Diego State University, Fino interviewed 10 of the graduates about their experiences in the program. The students told him the cohort format, consistent schedule of courses from 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., and the assistance of the program’s student success specialist helped them persist.

The cohort model with all the students moving through every course together “wasn’t all necessarily positive,” he said.  There were challenges with different work styles and personalities.

“They acknowledged that was important for them to work through [differences] … And they connected the importance of that to the workplace,” Fino said.

He added that he is pleased Mira Costa devoted the extra money it received from baccalaureate students’ tuition to biotech supplies and the salary of a student success specialist. The California legislature set the community college baccalaureate tuition rate at $130 per unit. Even at $84 more than the $46 per unit for associate degree programs the total cost of a baccalaureate from a California community college is $10,000.

At Mira Costa the success specialist for the biomanufacturing program is in contact with every student at least once a week.

“She’s kind of a living early alert system,” Fino said, explaining that the specialist directs students to the many support services on campus and serves as an intermediary to help them navigate the power dynamic with faculty.

“I think that in addition to the cohort model, [the success specialist] has been one of the keys to success,” he said.

Putting it all together

Esther Nair, a 2021 biomanufacturing bachelor’s degree recipient from Mira Costa College, is a quality analyst at Native Microbials, Inc.

For Nair, it was the whole package — supportive cohort of classmates, attentive faculty and staff, predictable schedule, jobs on campus and low cost — plus the college’s proximity to her home that made Mira Costa’s biomanufacturing program a good fit for her.  

When she enrolled five years ago, she was dealing with enormous stress. At age 34, her marriage of 11 years had disintegrated, and she was searching for a career to support herself and her two children. She felt she had one shot to earn a degree.  

During her first meeting with an advisor at Mira Costa, Nair shared that she was interested in marine science but that at-sea assignments would conflict with her family responsibilities. The advisor suggested the biomanufacturing bachelor’s degree program. She explained it would allow Nair to follow her interest in science, was affordable and would lead to a career with nearby biotech companies that paid family-supporting wages. She enrolled immediately without even understanding what biotechnicians do.

“I’m going to make this happen to take care of my kids,” Nair said of her career decision.

Nair completed an associate degree at Mira Costa in 2018. With this credential, she obtained a one-year paid internship at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. The income was critical at that point when she was on the fence about whether to do the last two years of a baccalaureate at Mira Costa or another university. The researchers’ praise of the lab skills she learned at Mira Costa and the $16,000 per year tuition elsewhere led her back to Mira Costa.

“If it weren’t for this degree at Mira Costa, I really don’t think I would have gotten a bachelor’s degree,” she said.  

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.