4-year degrees could be coming to a community college near you

group of college students studying

Four-year institutions used to be the only option for students pursuing a bachelor's degree, but an increasing number of states are passing provisions that allow two-year schools to offer their own four-year degrees. The latest is SB-850, a bill authored by California state Sen. Marty Block that would allow a limited number of two-year California colleges to design and implement their own baccalaureate programs. Passed by the state senate in April, the bill, if approved by the governor, would establish a statewide pilot program that would implement up to 20 bachelor's programs at community and technical colleges across the state. Under current legislation, California two-year schools can only offer four-year degrees if they partner with an already established bachelor's degree-granting institution.

"The obvious advantage for us is the flexibility and freedom to establish a [bachelor's] program that we think meets the community needs," says Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District."For instance, if we have something that we think is important to do in the San Mateo County, we would have to rely on San Francisco State to also think that's a need …"

SB-850, and similar initiatives in other states, are largely driven by the skills gap — the unfortunately large difference between the number of college-educated workers that are needed and the number we have in the U.S. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California estimates that, if current workforce trends continue, by 2025 California alone will be short 1 million college-educated employees. On the national level, an estimated 65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020, reports Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. The United States is expected to come up short by about 5 million degree-holding employees.

Transfer issues feed the education gap

The rapidly increasing cost of a four-year degree stands in the way of filling that gap, as do limited transfer options from the two-year to the four-year level.

"One of the reasons that we're not able to enroll as many students as we possibly could is because of the funding issues that the state has seen since the global recession," says Michael Uhlenkamp, director of public affairs for California State University, a system of 23 campuses that supplies about half of the state's bachelor degrees.

Between the 2007-08 school year and 2011-12, CSU lost about $1 billion in state funding due to higher education cuts. In the past three years, the school has made some gains, but it's still more than half a billion short of its 2007-08 heyday — despite higher enrollment.

"We're about at the same level of funding from the state of California that we received in 2004-05, but we are serving an additional 50,000 students," Uhlenkamp says. "… If you restore funding and you make higher education a priority, then we [will] not have to turn away literally 25,000 eligible students every single year."

Linda L. Lacy, president of Cerritos College, a two-year institution in Norwalk, Calif., says that at one point, her school had between 1,000 and 2,000 students every year who were educationally ready to transfer to a four-year school but had no place to go.

"We saw a lot of students kind of being forced to go to out of state institutions, and they were attending more private [colleges] at a higher cost," she says.

Two-year schools still face degree limitations

SB-850 is a start, but it's packed with limitations to prevent mission creep and competition between two- and four-year schools. The baccalaureate pilot program is limited to 20 of California's 72 community college districts, and only one college per district may develop a four-year degree. Two-year schools can only develop bachelor's degree programs in fields that are directly related to unmet workforce demands in that area and can't develop programs that are in competition with those offered through any other public four-year school in the state. That means that despite having the faculty and workforce need necessary to create a four-year nursing degree program, Cerritos College can't do it because that program is already offered through both the University of California and California State University.

"I think [SB-850] is still valuable," Lacy says. "It's still a step in the right direction. We were disappointed that they excluded nursing."

Currently, 21 states have passed legislation that allows two-year schools to offer four-year degrees, and many include similar limitations. Colorado, for example, passed legislation in February that limits two-year schools to only offering bachelor of applied science degrees, which cater to students in career and technical fields. The move, says Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, is to provide students with a way to seamlessly continue their education even if they earned an associate degree in a technical field that's not available at most four-year schools.

For example, "there's no water quality four-year degree in the state of Colorado, and if a student wanted to get a four-year degree to advance into a supervisory position, the only tangential four-year degree that was available to them was in environmental engineering up at Boulder," she says. "That's not very applicable to the job that they were trying to get."

Colorado aims to offer four-year degrees in dental hygiene and water quality management through community colleges starting in 2016, McCallin says.

Precedents for opening up baccalaureate programs to community colleges were set long before Colorado's initiative, and their outcomes are paving the way for more states to jump on board.

"There are many states that do this right now, and it has been proven to be viable in those states," says Ron Galatolo of the San Mateo County Community College District. "California is kind of coming along a little late in the game, but, you know, [a] little late is better than never."


"Senate approves Block measure allowing community colleges to offer four year degrees," Sen. Marty Block, California State Senate, May 27, 2014,

"Report from California Community Colleges Baccalaureate Degree Study Group," California Community Colleges,

California Community Colleges Registry,

Senate Bill No. 850, California State Senate, Amended April 10, 2014,

"2014-15 Support Budget: CSU/Higher Education Funding — Recovering from Crisis," The California State University, Nov. 1, 2013,

CSU Nursing Programs for Prospective Students, The California State University,

"Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020, Executive Summary," Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith and Jeff Strohl, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce,

Ron Galatolo, Chancellor of the San Mateo Community College District, Interviewed by the author, July 1, 2014

"Closing the Gap: Meeting California's Needs for College Graduates," Hans Johnson and Ria Sengupta, Public Policy Institute of California,

Dr. Linda L. Lacy, E.D., President of Cerritos College, Interviewed by the author, July 2, 2014

Dr. Nancy McCallin, Ph.D., President of the Colorado Community College System, Interviewed by the author, July 2, 2014

Senate Bill 14-004, State of Colorado Sixty-Ninth General Assembly,

Michael Uhlenkamp, Director of Public Affairs for California State University, Interviewed by the author, July 2, 2014

The Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing: Bachelor's Degree Program, University of California, Davis,