This week Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law Senate Bill 1453, which will allow Arizona’s community colleges to offer four-year college degrees. When the new law takes effect this fall, Arizona will become the 24th state where community colleges can grant baccalaureate degrees with certain conditions.

Under the new law, community colleges outside of the states two biggest counties – Maricopa and Pima – will be allowed to offer unlimited numbers of baccalaureate degrees. In Maricopa and Pima counties, home to Arizona State University and the University of Arizona respectively, there will be limits on how many four-year degrees can be granted and how much tuition can be charged (tuition per credit hour for the third and fourth years of a baccalaureate program is capped at 150% of tuition for other courses at the community college)

“Arizona’s community colleges play a critical role in supporting students of all ages and equipping our workforce with skills and resources,” said Governor Ducey. “Arizona is a school choice state, and today’s action is school choice for higher education. This is ‘Opportunity for All’ in action. It will allow students even more opportunities as they strengthen their education and expand their employment opportunities.”

Arizona’s decision allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees followed a debate similar to that heard in other states. Here, according to a 2020 brief from the Education Commission of the States, are the main arguments – pro and con – for the policy.

Advocates typically point to three factors favoring such expansion:

  1. Community colleges are usually more nimble than four-year institutions and therefore can better develop degree programs that address changing workforce needs, particularly in high-demand fields.
  2. Community colleges can offer bachelor’s degrees to more diverse student populations, especially in areas without a nearby four-year institution. They’re often designed to serve nontraditional groups such as low-income, first-generation and older students, as well as students of color.
  3. A bachelor’s degree from a community college is usually much less costly than the tuition and fees charged by four-year institutions. Therefore, the policy helps reduce perennial concerns about affordability and student loan debt.

Opponents cite these objections to expanding community college degrees:

  1. Community college bachelor’s degrees introduce mission creep that will distract institutions from their primary expertise in offering associate degrees and certificates and preparing students to transfer to four-year campuses.
  2. The policy encourages duplication of effort and increased competition with four-year schools for students, faculty and state funding.
  3. Because of the costs of gaining regional accreditation, adding faculty and staff, and building or upgrading facilities, the costs of AA programs at community colleges will either eventually increase (as they subsidize the new BA programs), or those bachelor’s degrees will be of inferior quality to those offered at four-year institutions. Concerns about community colleges’ historically low degree-completion rates are also often raised.

As a result of these arguments, most states, like Arizona, have placed various conditions on two-year schools offering four-year degrees. Common constraints include: proving that program duplication will not occur, limiting the number of institutions authorized to offer the degrees, specifying the degree programs that will be allowed, capping the tuition that can be charged, and establishing an economic/workforce need by employers, communities or regions before green-lighting a new program.

Nonetheless, the momentum for community college bachelor’’s degrees is apparent. Here are the 24 states that now authorize them at some level: Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

And with the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for the role of community colleges in boosting the nation’s educational attainment and economic recovery, prospects for the trend continuing are favorable. Leaders of four-year universities may see the handwriting on the wall. Although Larry Penley, Chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the state’s four-year public universities, objected to the law, the presidents of two of the state’s universities – Michael Crow at Arizona State and Rita Cheng at the University of Northern Arizona – did not voice opposition.

Perhaps the better course of action for leaders of four-year universities is to not oppose bachelor’s degrees at two-year colleges, but instead to increase their own degree opportunities. One example is reverse transfera process for awarding an AA degree to students who transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution prior to completing the AA requirements at the two-year institution. Through reverse transfer, students combine the credits they earn at their four-year school with those they had previously earned at community college and are retroactively awarded an associate’s degree by the community college. It’s a second chance at a first degree.

At least seven states (Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon and Texas) have passed legislation implementing reverse transfer policies, often as part of a strategic plan that establishes a stretch goal for the number of citizens who have a college degree.

Another option would be for four-year institutions to grant AA degrees to students who are in route to finishing bachelor’s programs. According to an estimate provided to me by Dr. Martha M. Parham, Senior Vice President for Public Relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, at least a third of universities may already offer AA degrees. But typically, these degrees are in specific occupationally oriented areas such as health, hospitality, technology or manufacturing.

What if four-year schools began to offer associate degrees along the way toward baccalaureate degrees? That’s a proposal championed by Temple Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, who tweeted the idea earlier this year. It’s not that far-fetched. Master’s degrees are often granted to students in PhD programs, sometimes as a planned milestone, often as a consolation credential for those who won’t finish their doctoral degrees.

Goldrick-Rab, who also founded and serves as Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, explained it this way to me in an email. “There are at least 36 million Americans who have completed some college but don’t have a degree. Many have done the coursework associated with an associate degree but didn’t receive one because they did the work at a four-year college. There is abundant evidence that having the credential is more valuable than simply having done the courses— there is a “signaling” effect used by employers, and a corresponding bump in odds of employment and earnings, and also a reduction in the odds that an individual will default on their student loans. People should receive credit for the work they’ve done, and not be penalized based on outdated structures.”

Much would need to be worked out before implementing broad availability of “embedded” AA degrees. For example should they require a new 60-hour curriculum or simply be awarded after completion of an institution’s general education core and additional hours to reach 60 credits. And similar “turf” objections to those voiced by four-year schools against bachelor’s degrees at community colleges would be raised by the two-year sector objecting to embedded AA degrees at four-year colleges.

In the end however, the real question should not be what degree policies best address institutional interests, but rather what credential options best serve the needs of students. While it deserves more debate, greater degree permeability between higher education sectors appears to be a policy that puts students first. Where they belong.



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