7 ways to scale up community college baccalaureates

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In many parts of the country, the idea of community colleges awarding a bachelor’s degree is not just novel, it’s unthinkable. Since their beginning, two-year colleges have provided an “open door” to higher education with one big exception: Community colleges cannot award bachelor’s degrees.

The problem is many community college students aspire to get a baccalaureate but never do. Truth be told, transfer is a challenging journey that requires students to start over at a new school after finding their place and succeeding in their chosen program of study. Adding more stress, universities charge double or triple more for tuition than community colleges. Given these challenges, is it any wonder more community colleges are considering offering bachelor’s degrees?

National results inform CCB scale-up

New research from the Community College Baccalaureate Association (CCBA) and Bragg & Associates, Inc. documents the growth of CCB degrees and provides new insights into CCB degrees nationwide. These data help to set the stage for a new phase of CCB scale-up, which means growing the scope and potential impact of bachelor’s degrees for students underserved by the current higher education system. While offering a pathway for more students to secure the baccalaureate, CCB degrees also help foster inclusive communities while strengthening regional economies.

For any innovation to scale up, data are needed to guide program development, optimize resources and take action (Century, 2007). Researchers Christina and Nicholson-Goodman (2005) note the importance of thinking of scaling up as having four critical dimensions:

  • Spread by growing understanding of the innovation and the know-how to implement it.
  • Depth by ensuring positive impact with tangible evidence of outcomes and benefits.
  • Sustainability by supporting longevity after the excitement of start-up fades and the going gets tougher.
  • Shift in ownership by normalizing the innovation to be routine and integral to the system.

Applying these dimensions to CCB degrees, we’re talking about spreading research on what CCB degrees are and how to implement more, providing evidence of where these degrees are happening and the impact they have on students and their communities, providing adequate resources and support to ensure CCB degrees last over time, and rooting CCBs so deeply in higher education systems that they are no longer met with consternation or worse: outright contempt.

Takeaways to scale up

Reviewing major findings from our national research on CCB degrees, I offer seven takeaways to help readers understand how these degrees may be able to scale up in the United States.  

It’s impossible to know if an innovation will scale up if we don’t know where it stands now. We need a baseline to measure growth. Of the 24 states conferring at least one CCB degree today, eight states approve the majority of community colleges to confer CCB degrees (Figure 1). Florida has scaled up CCBs the most, with all 28 colleges conferring at least one degree. Washington is just one short of all 34 community and technical colleges conferring a CCB.

Added to these, many community colleges in California and Texas confer bachelor’s degrees, showing the potential to surpass Florida and Washington soon because of the sheer size of their community college systems (116 community colleges in California, and more than 60 community colleges in Texas). Today, about one-third of the community colleges in each of these states are approved to offer CCB degrees, with an announcement of more CCB-degree approvals coming soon in California.

Source: Community College Baccalaureate Association and Bragg & Associates, Inc. (2024)

Many factors influence the scale-up of CCB degrees within states, with the language included in state laws being one of the most important. Enabling legislation helps to grow new programs, while restrictive language constrains them. For example, Massachusetts’ law authorizes just one community college, Quincy College, an independent public community college, to confer bachelor’s degrees while no other public community colleges can award them. In South Carolina, state law restricts CCB degrees to advanced manufacturing programs. While all technical colleges can adopt, if they make a good case, CCB degrees cannot grow into other industry sectors that may need baccalaureate-prepared employees.

All this is to say that understanding how state laws influence CCB programs is extremely important to scaling up more CCB degrees across the country.

As noted earlier, state and institutional leaders of higher education tend to view CCB degrees very differently. Naysayers argue CCB degrees duplicate university programs and destabilize enrollments, defending the status-quo structure of college degree conferral, while community college leaders point to the need to grow bachelor’s degrees to strengthen regional economies. They also point to the need to better serve racially minoritized and under-resourced families who are jeopardized most acutely by current transfer regimes.

Luckily, we see much less of this angst in states that have conferred CCB degrees for a long time. In states like Florida, Nevada and Washington, where CCB conferral is commonplace, higher education leaders understand why community colleges offer bachelor’s pathways. They don’t always agree that every CCB application should be approved, but they also don’t fight the mere idea that community colleges should be able to confer baccalaureates.

One important reason that CCB degrees become more widely accepted is greater understanding of their potential to create more equitable pathways for underserved and under-resourced students, including adult and working learners, to secure the baccalaureate. Demonstrating this point, our recent research shows half of the 187 community colleges authorizing bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. are minority-serving institutions (MSIs), with 76% of these MSIs designated as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) (Figure 2). This finding makes good sense as community colleges in the U.S. attract a disproportionate number of the Hispanic students, making them a logical provider of baccalaureates. In essence, these HSIs are breaking important new ground by leading in providing a valuable roadmap for community colleges serving diverse communities across the country.

Source: Community College Baccalaureate Association and Bragg & Associates, Inc. (2024)

Understanding which programs and types of bachelor’s degrees are offered by community colleges is necessary for scaling up more CCB degrees. Our research shows the 10 largest programs are healthcare, education, business and STEM (Figure 3). Jobs in these sectors are growing in many parts of the country, including nursing, teaching, IT and other critical occupations where existing bachelor’s pipelines don’t fully meet employer demand.

Our study also shows the type of bachelor’s degree associated with CCB programs tilt toward the bachelor of applied science (BAS). However, a substantial number of CCB degrees are offered in the form of a bachelor of science (BS) degree (Figure 4). Looking again at the state legislative landscape for CCB degrees, our research shows community colleges follow state law. BAS degrees are offered in large or universal proportion where state laws require them, and where states do not restrict CCBs to applied degrees, we find a higher proportion of BS, as well as bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degrees. Understanding that programming coupled to bachelor’s degree type can impact state approval is important to scaling up of bachelor’s degrees across the country.

CCB degrees are sometimes referred to as “workforce” degrees, and while I understand why this term is chosen, I think it’s a mistake. To me, this labeling of CCB degrees falls short of their potential to contribute to more inclusive community and economic development.

There’s no question CCB degrees are offered in occupations where more qualified employees are needed, but these degrees have the potential to do much more. Yes, community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees see their role in workforce development, but many also see themselves as a player in inclusive community development. CCB programs developed in partnership with employers grow and retain talent in pathways that help communities thrive.

Most CCB-conferring colleges are located in the two ends of the geographic continuum, with many located in rural/remote and small-town environments or large/urban settings (Figure 5). Understanding geography is important to seeing why CCB degrees are needed as research on “education deserts” confirms the place students live influences where and if they will ever go to college. Tapping into this expansive view of college access is reminiscent of the Truman Commission’s landmark report “Higher Education for Democracy” (1947), which provided a roadmap for community colleges across this country, including foreshadowing the need for some community colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees.

Given the many complex factors affecting decisions to scale up CCB degrees, we need more research to guide evidence-based decisions about scaling up CCB degrees. Hard questions need to be answered with valid and reliable data that can help us understand what CCB degrees mean for expanding access, employing graduates and supporting inclusive community development. We need to know more about what CCB degrees look like in community colleges designated as MSIs, specifically HSIs, including who these programs serve and how their students experience these programs. These and many more questions need answers to inform the scale-up of new CCB degrees.

Our research suggests more CCB degrees are coming, with the potential to provide access and opportunity for more students to attain a bachelor’s degree. Exactly when and how the scale-up of more CCB degrees will occur is yet to be seen, but for now it is important to remember community colleges have been labeled the people’s colleges for a reason.

Moving forward, I believe more community colleges should get the chance to confer bachelor’s degrees for all the reasons shared here, but even more importantly, to help strengthen the nation’s commitment to a thriving democracy.

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The author gratefully acknowledges her company’s research partnership with the Community College Baccalaureate Association (CCBA) and the generous funding from ECMC Foundation that made this study possible.

About the Author

Debra D. Bragg
Debra D. Bragg is president of Bragg & Associates, Inc. and endowed professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.