Can You Get a Bachelor’s Degree at a Community College?
Editor & Writer
Editor & Writer
- Two dozen states offer some form of bachelor's degree at community colleges.
- Community colleges in those states have adopted hundreds of degree programs, with many aimed at relevant workforce needs.
- Momentum for community college bachelor's degrees has picked up steam over the past decade, with many new states adopting four-year degree programs.
- Community colleges tend to be less costly and more accessible than traditional four-year schools.
Amid a nationwide shortage of cybersecurity professionals despite growing demand, Austin Community College in Texas plans to launch an unorthodox route for students this fall: a four-year degree in cybersecurity.
That high-demand bachelor's program will retain much of the flexibility that make community colleges key access points to higher education, including hybrid, in-person, and distance learning. Community colleges often serve historically underrepresented groups in higher education, including students of color, students with disabilities, parents, and working adults.
We support people from diverse backgrounds, including those who are neurodivergent, Austin Community College Provost Monique Umphrey said in announcing the four-year degree program.
We are designing this degree to be welcoming to all and more integrated into the technology community here.
Offering bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges can boost racial equity and access, according to a recent report from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Civil Rights Project.
That report recommended that California expand its four-year degree offerings at community colleges, and report co-author Marcela G. Cuéllar said the state's initial community college baccalaureate programs
show promise and could be the right tool for establishing an accessible, affordable, place-bound public pathway towards baccalaureate attainment and social and economic mobility.
But not all states offer bachelor's degrees at community colleges. Here's a look at what states allow students to earn four-year degrees at community colleges, how those degree programs work, and the future of a growing movement in higher education.
What States Offer Bachelor's Degrees at Community Colleges?
West Virginia was the first state to offer bachelor's degrees at community colleges in 1989. And since then, the movement has expanded to more than 20 other states.
The following states offer bachelor's degrees at community colleges, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association and New America. The number of community college programs has grown in recent years, New America noted in a 2021 report, with Arizona becoming the latest state to authorize a program in 2021.
List of States Offering Bachelor's Degrees at Community Colleges
- North Dakota
- New Mexico
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
Those 24 states include approximately 600 bachelor's degree programs, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association, and 15,000 bachelor's were awarded by community colleges during the 2019-2020 school year.
That movement is continuing to grow, Angela Kersenbrock, the president of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, previously told BestColleges.
Once a state starts having discussions about it, she said,
it's not a
never, it's a
Programs vary by state, but legislation typically requires colleges to justify the need for their degree programs and show a lack of overlap with four-year schools. California, for example, prohibits community colleges from offering four-year nursing degrees.
Are Community College Bachelor's Degree Programs Cheaper Than at Traditional Four-Year Schools?
Community colleges tend to be less costly than four-year schools: The average total cost of attendance at two-year public institutions started at $9,666 per year for in-state students for the 2020-2021 school year.
By comparison, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for four-year schools in 2020-2021 was $19,020.
Although community college tuition costs have nearly tripled over the last 20 years, states offer a wide variety of free community college programs, and about 81% of enrolled community college students were awarded some type of financial aid to pay for school in 2020.
Four-year degrees at community colleges tend to mean higher earnings for students in the long run, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association: Students who earned four-year degrees at community colleges earned roughly $10,000 more on average one year after graduation than their peers who earned an associate degree in the similar program.
Community Colleges Meet Workforce Demand
Starting in the fall of 2024, GateWay Community College in Phoenix will become a one-stop shop for a four-year nursing degree.
Nursing is another key area facing nationwide workforce shortages, and community colleges often serve as key partners with local businesses to fill workforce needs. Many four-year community college programs aim to address those local workforce needs, including Austin Community College's upcoming cybersecurity bachelor's degree.
In addition to the bachelor's in nursing program at GateWay, the Maricopa County Community College District plans to add a bachelor of science in artificial intelligence and machine learning program at Chandler-Gilbert Community College in the fall of 2025, reflecting an ever-growing demand for AI-fluent workers across the country.
Community colleges have a unique role to play as workers across the country look to reskill and train for new jobs after the COVID-19 pandemic. Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, previously told BestColleges that community colleges are uniquely positioned to provide relevant training for in-demand jobs.
A lot of people don't understand the breadth of opportunities for skills training across the country that is very in sync with the local workforce pipeline, Parham said.
Bachelor's degrees can also help community colleges themselves stave off enrollment declines, which the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated. Fall enrollment and full-time enrollment tended to increase at community colleges after the adoption of baccalaureate programs, according to a 2022 study from the University of Michigan.