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Why getting a 4-year degree at a community college may be the best pathway to a good-paying job
California is poised to launch a 15-campus experiment in affordable, practical bachelor's degrees, expanding on Miami model. - photo by Eric Schulzke
Students who want a low-debt, high-paying job with the advancement opportunities that come with a four-year degree may soon not need look beyond their local community college.

Getting a degree matters. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, half of those born into poverty who do not earn a college degree will remain in poverty, while 90 percent of those who do get a degree will escape it.

In an effort to get more high school students through college, President Obama recent advocated making community college free. But the Hechinger Report notes that only 14 percent of students who started at community colleges in 2007 ended up transferring and finishing a four-year degree.

Some reformers are now suggesting that community colleges could provide career-oriented four-year degrees on their own, and the model is now heading for a major test in the nation's most populous state.

This fall, California becomes the 22nd state to offer four-year baccalaureate degrees on its community college campuses. Fifteen of the state's 113 colleges will participate in a pilot project.

"It takes them a lot of time to get through the basics," said Patricia Gndara, co-director at UCLA's Civil Rights Project, "and they end up running out of steam, not transferring, and not finishing their degrees."

An established model

On the other coast, Florida has been on this since 2003, when the Legislature authorized community colleges to offer four-year degrees if they could demonstrate that the new programs meet specific workforce demands.

Florida now offers bachelor of science or bachelor of applied science degrees at 22 of its community college campuses, ranging from elementary education to project management to nursing and various other health fields. In both Florida and California, the programs forge strong connections to local businesses, ensuring an actual pathway to jobs.

These community college programs typically are built on a 2+2 model. That means that students must complete a preparatory associates degree before applying to a two-year program to complete their bachelors on the same campus.

Employment results appear to be quite strong. Miami Dade College in Florida, for example, boasts that more than 80 percent of its education graduates are employed as teachers, while 93 percent of its nursing graduate are working in nursing.

With roughly 140,000 students, Miami Dade is the largest higher education institution in the country. Currently about 5 percent of those students are in four-year programs. More than half of those students are working adults.

Overall, Miami Dade reports that more than 80 percent of its 2013 bachelors degree graduates have jobs, with 10 percent in graduate school. The school also boasts that 93 percent of its bachelors graduates leave debt free.

So while getting a bachelors degree from a community college may not be around the corner for the majority of entering freshmen, the California pilot suggests that this path may become more common in the coming years.

Rigorous oversight

One thing that sets these programs apart is a sharp focus on industry connections and employment demand. In Florida, for example, getting a new four-year program approved at a given community college is a serious hurdle, requiring a strong case with industry buy-in.

The approval process is very rigorous, and we have demonstrated that there is a workforce need, said Julie Alexander, vice provost for academic affairs at Miami Dade College.

That oversight was evident with Miami Dades physician assistant program, Alexander said. The PA program was first designed to be 2+2, meaning that students would do a two-year associate's degree first and then finish their bachelor's, becoming physician's assistants. Industry and the accrediting agencies pushed back, however, and the program will now become a generalized health sciences degree, partnering with a nearby PA program that will allow successful students to transfer for a masters degree prior to entering the workforce.

Often a new program will result from direct industry outreach, but it always requires strong industry support that guarantees success for the students, Alexander said, and industry representatives then sit on advisory committees that meet repeatedly to help shape the programs going forward.

Miami Dade is currently building a program in data analytics, which will teach students to help make complex data both actionable and interpretable. This program was instigated at the suggestion of local industries, which sent letters to the State Board of Education urging the programs approval.

Needless to say, such career and industry focus in four-year programs sets community colleges' four-year degrees apart from many lower-tier state colleges and universities, where students often end up getting BAs in philosophy or theater without any clear pathway to a job.

A real hope

In California, community college baccalaureates may hold the key to a demographic challenge that is bordering on disaster.

In a state where since 2014 Latinos have outnumbered whites, many look with concern at the fact that 58 percent of Asians and 45 percent of non-Hispanic whites have college degrees, compared to just 13 percent of Latinos and 27 percent of African-Americans.

If that doesn't change, that disparity will cause the states per capita personal income to fall 11 percent by 2020, a new UCLA study on Californias community college baccalaureate program argues.

The real objective of the community college baccalaureate initiative, Gndara argues, must be to increase degree completion and quality job placement for kids who otherwise get derailed.

With 113 campuses, Gndara notes, California relies on community colleges as a pipeline to college more than any other state. But the state ranks 45th in the nation in degree completion.

Many of those who get derailed lose momentum in the community college system, said Gndara, who coauthored the UCLA study.

It may not be a silver bullet, but if the Miami Dade model is what it appears to be and the California trial run succeeds, there may be real alternatives to the attrition of at-risk students attending community colleges.