Community College Bachelor’s Degrees Can Boost Access for Underrepresented Students: Report

Bachelor's degree programs at California community colleges are key to closing racial equity gaps, according to a new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project.
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Published on April 17, 2023
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  • Bachelor's degrees at community colleges can help close racial equity gaps, according to a report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project.
  • Few community college students who want to transfer to a four-year school do so.
  • Pilot community college baccalaureate programs in California have shown promising graduation rates and employment outcomes, according to the report.
  • The report recommends expansion with a key focus on racial equity.

California should expand bachelor's degree programs at community colleges to boost racial equity, according to a new report from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Civil Rights Project.

The UCLA Civil Rights Project report notes that "substantial differences exist in who has access to and completes baccalaureate degrees in California." Fewer than a third of students who want to transfer to a four-year college have done so after six years, according to the report, and there are "large racial equity gaps among those students who do."

Although Latino/a community college students account for more than half of students who intend to transfer, they represent only 35% of those who successfully transfer within four years, according to the report. Black or African American students make up 7% of all students who want to transfer, but make up only 5% of transfers, according to the report.

Offering bachelor's degrees at community colleges is key to closing racial equity gaps, according to the report.

"California'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," report co-author Marcela G. Cuéllar, an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, said in a release. "Education leaders and policy makers need to act to meet the needs of our students and state."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a bill into law in late 2021 to expand community college bachelor's degrees and make pilot programs at 15 community colleges permanent. Those existing pilot programs for community college bachelor's degrees are showing promise, according to the report. Those programs averaged high two- and three-year graduation rates, with graduates finding success in the job market, according to the report.

The two-year average graduation rate for all community college bachelor's programs in the state across three cohorts studied was 67%, and the three-year graduation rate was 78%, according to the report, although the researchers said there needs to be more data collection to better study student outcomes after graduation.

Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, a co-author of the study and chair of the Department of Education at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, said in a release that many community college students "face economic and structural challenges in the education system that hinder their ability to transfer to four-year colleges and complete their degree."

"The expansion of the Community College Baccalaureate degree programs offers the potential to do better by these students," Rios-Aguilar said. "We can further educational and racial equity by increasing access to opportunities for degree completion at local community colleges and help to meet our state's educational and economic needs by increasing degree production."

Community college bachelor's programs attract students who are older and may be more place-bound, according to the release.

Community colleges in more than 20 states offer bachelor's degree programs, BestColleges previously reported. West Virginia was the first state to authorize bachelor's degree programs at community colleges more than three decades ago.

More than 20,000 students earned bachelor's degrees at community colleges in 2019, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Those students are more likely to come from historically underserved student groups.