Earning Your Bachelor’s Degree at a Community College

Community college bachelor's degrees are popular and proliferating. University leaders fear the worst, but those fears are largely unfounded.
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  • In 24 states, students can earn a bachelor's degree at the community college level.
  • This low-cost, accessible option opens doors for underserved populations.
  • Programs typically are career-oriented and address workforce needs of local communities.
  • Critics call this "mission creep" and question the quality and validity of the degree.

Fans of the NBC hit "Community" fondly remember the screwball study group that terrorized Greendale Community College from 2009 to 2015. Some of the main characters stayed with the show for the duration, inching their way toward bachelor's degrees and living in campus residence halls.

Were the four-year degrees contrived just to accommodate the show's longevity? Not entirely.

Community colleges, it seems, are increasingly becoming more like traditional universities. Today, in almost half of the states, you can earn a bachelor's degree at your local community college. And in many cases, you can live in a dorm while you do it.

Is this a positive trend or yet another example of "mission creep''? How valid are community college bachelor's degrees in the job market? And what do four-year college presidents think about all this?

A Snapshot of Community College Bachelor's Degrees

According to a 2021 study by New America titled "Mapping the Community College Baccalaureate," community colleges in 24 states offer bachelor's degrees, constituting about 15% of community colleges nationwide.

In 1989, West Virginia became the first state to authorize community college baccalaureates, commonly referred to as "CCBs," though the concept traces its origins to the 1947 Truman Commission report. Other early adopters include Georgia and Washington state, as well as Florida, which offers 172 such programs, the most of any state.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more than 20,000 students earned bachelor's degrees from community colleges in 2019.

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According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more than 20,000 students earned bachelor's degrees from community colleges in 2019. Compared to their four-year college counterparts, these students are far more likely to be first-generation college-goers and come from low-income households and underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds. In Florida, three out of four students come from underserved populations.

They're also older — in their early 30s, on average. Many are parents working full or part time, simultaneously juggling life and educational responsibilities.

The chance to earn a bachelor's degree at their local community college, with its built-in flexibility and low cost, is exactly what they need to climb the socioeconomic ladder and afford a better life for their families.

"I think the community college baccalaureate … is providing an opportunity for a new vision and testing of a system that can be more forgiving," said Debra Bragg, one of the authors of the New America study, in a podcast, "and a better way for many to experience college."

Having the baccalaureate option at the community college level also eliminates the need to transfer. Nationally, fewer than 15% of community college students transfer to four-year schools, and those who do lose an average of 37% of their earned credits in the process.

"Transfer is the hurdle that we create to get the baccalaureate," Bragg told Inside Higher Ed, "and, unfortunately, we do that to the students that have the least resources and are often the least prepared to make those transitions in their college-going experience."

Arizona and California Expand Access to Baccalaureate Programs

Among the 24 CCB states, seven approved their programs between 2017 and 2021, suggesting this trend has gained momentum. More state adoptions are imminent.

Angela Kersenbrock, president of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, told BestColleges about five more states will consider such programs in the next couple of years.

"Once a state starts having discussions about it," she said, "it's not a 'never,' it's a 'not yet.'"

Last year, Arizona became the latest state to approve CCBs.

"Community college is about access," Maricopa Community College District Interim Chancellor Steven R. Gonzales told Inside Higher Ed. "To suddenly say that everyone has an opportunity to pursue a four-year baccalaureate through an open-door institution should be something that should be celebrated across our state, across our country."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 927, which expands the state's CCBs and makes pilot programs at 15 community colleges permanent.

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Later in 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 927, which expands the state's CCBs and makes pilot programs at 15 community colleges permanent. The California Community College system can offer up to 30 new baccalaureate programs each year.

"For us, it's like Christmas," Star Rivera-Lacey, president and superintendent at Palomar College, told Inside Higher Ed. "Community colleges have always been a place of accessibility. To add a bachelor's degree to that — I think this is a game changer …"

California has long been a bellwether for public higher education, so this expansion bodes well for community colleges in other states.

"Given the size and importance of the state," said Constance Carroll, president and CEO of the California Community College Baccalaureate Association and retired chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, "California being a part of this effort will definitely strengthen the national movement."

States Require Career-Focused Programs, Add Other Restrictions

Legislation in both Arizona and California have restrictions similar to those in other CCB states.

For one, these bachelor's degree programs must be career-oriented and address regional workforce needs. The most common majors are business, health and nursing, education, computer science, and engineering. Bachelor of arts degrees are rare.

Nursing provides a peculiar example, at least in the context of California's legislation. Nationwide, it's a popular program within CCB states, with many offering bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) programs for registered nurses who hold an associate degree and seek career advancement through a bachelor's degree.

"Of the many possible fields that CCB degrees might be offered," the New America report states, "we hear the loudest and most vociferous calls for more community colleges to confer BSN degrees."

Yet California's law prohibits community colleges from offering nursing baccalaureates, even though demand far exceeds supply. Kersenbrock suspects four-year institutions want to protect their "RN-to-BSN" programs, which can be cash cows for those schools.

Another common restriction prevents community colleges from instituting baccalaureate programs that replicate what already exists at a state's four-year schools.

Legislation typically requires community colleges to justify the need for a degree by demonstrating no overlap with four-year institutions. In some high-demand fields, such as education and nursing (California notwithstanding), some duplication is allowed.

And in Ohio, program duplication is permitted provided the community college demonstrates a "unique approach" in its offering, however that may be interpreted.

Finally, even though community colleges typically have lower tuition than four-year schools, some states take the extra measure of limiting how much community colleges can charge for their bachelor's programs.

In California, tuition is capped at $10,560 for all four years. Arizona says community colleges can charge up to 150% of the cost of associate degree courses for its baccalaureate courses.

Why do they have to charge more?

Because creating a baccalaureate program requires additional investments. Colleges must hire faculty to beef up the curriculum, build labs and purchase equipment, upgrade learning and tutoring resources, and offer more student support services. Gaining accreditation at the baccalaureate level often requires them to do so.

Colleges must hire faculty to beef up the curriculum, build labs and purchase equipment, upgrade learning and tutoring resources, and offer more student support services.

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Jeremy Wright-Kim, an assistant professor of higher education at Fairleigh Dickinson University and an expert on community college baccalaureate programs, has conducted research on how institutions and states accommodate these demands.

"Particularly in the initial years … you do see a significant increase in spending on average at adoptive institutions," Wright-Kim told BestColleges. "They're building their infrastructure."

Does that infrastructure include residence halls? It's hard to say. There's scant information on community college dorms, though the American Association of Community Colleges offers some telling stats. According to its research, 28% of community colleges nationwide offer on-campus housing, but only 1.5% of community college students opt to live on campus.

Troy and Abed, of "Community," were the exceptions.

Critics Claim 'Mission Creep,' Question Quality

The community college baccalaureate movement isn't without opposition. Not surprisingly, many four-year college presidents don't think it's a good idea.

A 2019 Inside Higher Ed survey revealed that while 75% of community college presidents want their schools to offer bachelor's degrees, two-thirds of four-year college presidents think they shouldn't.

A 2019 Inside Higher Ed survey revealed that while 75% of community college presidents want their schools to offer bachelor's degrees, two-thirds of four-year college presidents think they shouldn't.

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What's more, 85% of two-year college presidents think CCBs can help narrow the educational attainment gap for racial and ethnic minorities, yet only 47% of four-year college presidents agree with that assessment. The survey notes opposition to CCBs comes mostly from presidents of four-year public institutions.

They're not alone. Some state legislators and regents, including those in Arizona, oppose measures to elevate community colleges to the baccalaureate level.

Why do they object? One reason is "mission creep." Critics contend community colleges, in their effort to become more like four-year colleges, will not only attempt to replicate the trappings of the four-year experience — complete with residential living, a wide array of co-curricular offerings, and an expanded athletics program — but, in the process, also will abandon their commitment to the populations they've historically served.

There's also a sense among university leaders that as community colleges continue to expand their missions and offerings and become more like four-year schools, community colleges will duplicate their programs, siphon off enrollments, and cut into their slice of the state's higher education budgetary pie.

Wright-Kim's research, however, reveals these concerns are unfounded.

"The alternative argument [to mission creep] is that community colleges by definition serve the needs of their communities," he said. "If that need…is a more financially, geographically accessible four-year credential, that is not mission creep in the slightest. It's just an evolution of their foundational commitment to community needs."

What about the fear that universities will lose students to community colleges? Given the socioeconomic status, age, and life circumstances of most CCB students, "the university wasn't getting that student anyway," Kersenbrock noted.

Another criticism involves the perception of quality. Just how academically viable is a bachelor's degree from a community college? Are students receiving a good education? What will employers think of the credential?

Here again, Wright-Kim's analysis allays any anxieties.

"Contrary to worries that CCBs are subpar credentials," he writes, "data suggest CCB graduates experience positive labor market outcomes."

Those data include job placement rates and salaries. Surveys of CCB graduates indicate high satisfaction with their experience.

"By and large," Wright-Kim said, "you don't really see a penalty for getting a four-year degree from a community college."

Amazon, for one, believes they're viable. In January 2022 the company announced a pilot program to fund the launch of computer science bachelor's degree programs at community and technical colleges in Washington state.

"It has a symbolic impact to say, 'We believe in community colleges,'" said Shouan Pan, chancellor of Seattle Colleges.

And why not, given the historically strong partnership between community colleges and the private sector, which share a goal of regional economic development?

"So many of the industries have a hand in developing the degree," Kersenbrock said, "so if this is a degree you helped develop, well, you'd better be darn sure this is a quality degree that has what you need."

If there is one valid concern, it pertains to completion rates. Nationwide, the completion rate for students who enrolled in public community colleges in fall 2016 was 33.7%, an all-time high. That number has been rising steadily over the past few years, but it still trails the four-year college rate of 63%.

Granted, community college students tend to take fewer courses at once (an average of 2.2 per term, according to Kersenbrock) and stop-out more frequently than their four-year counterparts, but what makes community college leaders believe students who have difficulty persisting through a two-year program suddenly will persist through a four-year track?

One answer is to provide even more support services to help students complete the marathon.

"One of the things that the community college baccalaureate has brought about is the whole relooking at wrap-around services for the students," Kersenbrock said. "How do we get them to that finish line?"