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California Community Colleges should not be allowed to offer Four-Year Degrees

CA Master Plan for Higher Education is at Risk

Having taught in the California State University System for almost thirty years, I was surprised to learn of Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to allow two-year community colleges to offer four-year degrees. Paving the way for one of the largest community college systems in the U.S. to offer four-year degrees, on September 28, 2014 Governor Brown signed into law a bill that will create a pilot program for 15 community colleges across the state to fill a growing workforce demand for college-educated, skilled workers in fields such as health, science and technology.

The proposal makes no sense to me because both the California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) schools already offer such degrees. If there is a shortage of graduates, it’s due more to students not choosing these fields to study perhaps because of their more rigorous requirements.

The pilot program will begin no later than the 2017-18 academic year and run through at least the 2022-23 school year. Colleges will add on an extra $84 per unit for baccalaureate coursework, which would allow students to earn a bachelor’s degree for less than the average four-year school.

Brown’s proposal is contrary to the California Master Plan for Higher Education that was adopted in 1960. The original Master Plan was approved by The Regents and the State Board of Education and submitted to the Legislature. A special session of the 1960 Legislature passed the Donahoe Higher Education Act, which included many of the Master Plan recommendations as well as additional legislation necessary to implement the plan.

The major features of the Master Plan as adopted in 1960 and amended in subsequent legislative reviews are as follows:

1. Differentiation of functions among the public postsecondary education segments:

* UC is designated the State's primary academic research institution and is to provide undergraduate, graduate and professional education. UC is given exclusive jurisdiction in public higher education for doctoral degrees (with the two exceptions) and for instruction in law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine (the original plan included architecture).

* CSU's primary mission is undergraduate education and graduate education through the master's degree including professional and teacher education. Faculty research is authorized consistent with the primary function of instruction. SB 724 (2006) authorized CSU to award a specific Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in educational leadership. Other doctorates can be awarded jointly with UC or an independent institution.

* The California Community Colleges have as their primary mission providing academic and vocational instruction for older and younger students through the first two years of undergraduate education (lower division). In addition to this primary mission, the Community Colleges are authorized to provide remedial instruction, English as a Second Language courses, adult noncredit instruction, community service courses, and workforce training services.

I believe Brown’s proposal is unfair to the California State University System for two reasons. First it threatens to shift thousands of students from the CSU to the Community Colleges without any sound educational reasons. If students want to study in the areas allegedly not currently covered well enough in the state systems, then they can get vocational training at the community colleges right now and/or specialized, technical colleges.

If Brown allows two-year colleges to offer four-year degrees, then he should also allow four-year state colleges to offer Ph.D degrees that are mostly restricted to the UC. The same cost issues apply here as well.

Brown also misses the point that by allowing two-year colleges to offer four-year degrees, he is creating a need for more highly trained faculty, which will lead to higher costs to run these programs. Who will pay for it? Will it be the citizens of California? I don’t think he has disclosed the added costs of higher-level programs and staffing and, therefore, he is misleading the citizens of California on budget issues.

If community colleges begin to offer four-year degrees, they will need to meet more stringent assessment and accreditation requirements that will increase the costs to run these institutions. The need for additional technological equipment, campus resources, and more highly-educated faculty is likely to make any cost savings to students more than wiped out by higher costs to run these colleges. I don’t think the community colleges are currently poised to meet the higher accreditation standards.

Governor Brown is looking to add to his legacy now that he is in the last term of his Governorship and at the end of his political career. His proposal to allow two-year colleges to offer four-year degrees is misplaced.

One of the problems with the educational system in California, and perhaps across the country, is students graduate from high schools without the requisite skills to be successful in college and the workplace. The slack needs to be picked up by the two-year colleges. Adding four-year degrees to their portfolio is an invitation to educational disaster and will backfire in the future because less-than-fully qualified students will then graduate with four-year degrees and be under the false assumption that their opportunities for entry level jobs is just as great as if they had graduated from the CSU or UC Systems. I doubt that would be the case so all he would be doing in the end would be to mislead community college students into believing they will be competitive in the marketplace.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 5, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: