May 18, 2022
Until now, there has been little research on the education and career pathways of community college baccalaureate (CCB) students. This research provides qualitative results on who these students are, what information and opportunities drive them toward completion of their programs, and what the CCB degree means to them. The data suggest most of these students are not those who otherwise would have enrolled at a regional public university. For many, the CCB programs took their prior learning into account and used flexible schedules to accommodate their work and family needs. Students felt these programs were designed with adult learners like them in mind, allowing them to enter or stay in programs where they felt supported and able to complete their bachelor’s degree.
In this brief, we profile three students who told us what it was like to work toward a bachelor’s degree and why they chose to enroll at a community college to do so. All three students brought with them years of work experience, a sense of responsibility to their families and community, and clear preferences about the type of environment where they would want to pursue a degree. Jasen, Chaneta, and Diego offer a look into how opportunities to earn a bachelor’s degree at a community college aligned with their values, needs, and priorities. We also learn how information and opportunity impact their trajectories within and beyond their CCB programs. We hope our overview and exploration of the racial equity implications of CCBs will set the stage for these three profiles and for what policymakers and practitioners can learn from their experiences.
CCBs and Equity in Higher Education
Twenty-five states authorize at least one public, predominantly associate degree-granting college to confer baccalaureate degrees (Love et al., 2021). Among them, Florida and Washington stand out as having the most fully developed state policy for community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees. Florida has received the most attention because of its early and highly visible state legislative campaign authorizing CCB degrees in 2001 (Floyd & Skolnik, 2019). Washington has expanded CCB degrees too, with 29 of its 34 community colleges now offering them (Love et al., 2021).
Meanwhile, higher education enrollment in the U.S. is becoming more racially diverse, though gaps in bachelor’s degree attainment between racial groups persist. In 2016, 54 percent of Asian Americans and 35 percent of Whites 25 years or older had completed at least a four-year degree, compared with only 21 percent of African Americans, 18 percent Pacific Islanders, 15 percent of Hispanics and American Indian/Alaska Natives (de Brey et al., 2019). Community colleges serve as the critical first step toward baccalaureate attainment for racially minoritized populations, as Black, Hispanic, and Native American and Pacific Islanders undergraduates were more likely to attend a community college in fall 2016 than other higher education institutions (Espinosa et al., 2019).
CCB programs provide students the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree without the well-documented challenges of transfer from a community college to another institution. As Marcela Cuellar and Patricia Gandara (2020) argue, CCBs have the potential to decrease racial equity gaps. However, as they explain, “the potential for achieving [racial] equity will likely not be realized without conscious attention to this as an integral goal of these programs” (p. 71).
Students enrolled in CCB degree programs tend to be older, on average, than students enrolled in programs conferring credentials up through the associate degree, based on CCB student demographics in Washington State (Meza, 2020a). These added years of living tend to be associated with having families with dependents, working full-time jobs, and engaging in civic responsibilities, and these experiences shape the ways these students engage in their college education (Bragg, 2013; Floyd & Skolnik, 2019).
Demographic data from Florida and Washington suggest that CCBs may enhance access to baccalaureate degrees for some racially minoritized students. More information about who these students are, how and why they enroll in CCB programs, and what they believe the programs contribute to their future is missing from the literature. As CCB programs become more prevalent, it is important to understand the experiences of CCB students, especially older and racially minoritized students, if we want these programs to impact equity in baccalaureate completion rates.
The Study Methodology
If CCBs are to contribute to educational equity, it is important to understand why racially minoritized students pursue CCB degrees, what their experiences are like, and what the degree means to them. This qualitative study helps to fill a gap in knowledge about the CCB student and graduate experience, drawing on qualitative data gathered in Washington State.
Using interviews, we explored how students and graduates experienced CCB degree programs. We asked about their personal and family life, educational journey from the K–12 grades to higher education, job history, and aspirations for employment and career advancement. Our study involved gathering and analyzing phenomenological data from 17 CCB students or recent graduates and creating profiles of three of these individuals to paint a picture of how students experience CCB programs and what their baccalaureate degrees mean to their economic security and personal well-being. Our primary questions were:
1) How did the experiences, and the interplay of information and opportunity, contribute to students’ decisions to enroll in and complete baccalaureate degrees at community college?
2) How did CCB students experience their baccalaureate programs, and what were their perceptions of the value and meaning of their degrees?
3) What did the CCB degree mean for students’ employment, economic security, and career advancement?
CCB Student Profiles
In this brief, we tell the stories of three CCB students to understand their trajectory to and through their CCB programs. These three students attended Columbia Basin College, Highline College, and North Seattle College, enrolling in programs in early childhood education (ECE), global trade and logistics, and registered nursing. The personal, educational, and employment experiences are unique to each individual, but we see similarities in their reasons to secure a CCB degree and in what they view as the meaning and merits of their degree.
Chaneta: Early Childhood Education, Spring 2020
“Chaneta” is an African American woman in her 30s who was born in California. She is the third of four children in a middle-class family from Los Angeles. She was not the first in her family to attend college; her father was a teacher. The family moved around the area looking for safer neighborhoods and better teaching opportunities.
Influenced by her grandmother and mother who were seamstresses, Chaneta decided in high school that she wanted to be a fashion designer. She was drawn to the creativity of making clothes, but as she got older, she began to question her career choice. She could see ways the fashion industry objectified women, and she saw how her creative talents could be applied to food. Chaneta decided to go to a since-closed branch of the for-profit Art Institute, eventually obtaining an associate degree in culinary arts. Up to this point, Chaneta’s parents were relatively hands off, offering guidance and suggestions but not taking on a direct role. However, as Chaneta’s culinary arts program progressed, they encouraged her to follow her heart and choose a career working with children and youth. Chaneta said her mom “knew the education field was for me but didn’t push it, and I didn’t want to make the obvious choice.”
Chaneta experienced long hours and limited opportunities as a chef. Most of her time was spent “opening cans, warming, and adding final touches to foods that were already made.” Feeling discouraged and still eager for a career that would allow her to be creative, Chaneta decided to look for work in the Seattle area as the Great Recession set in. There, she worked in a catering business for a short time but again felt unfulfilled and unwelcome as a woman. “Crass behavior from co-workers” led her to believe a change was needed.
She started working as a nanny, which set her on the path to a career in education. She found a substitute teaching job in early childhood education and, from there, she realized she had found her calling.
Working at the pre-K level of a preschool in a multicultural area of Seattle, Chaneta started looking for a bachelor’s program in education. She heard about North Seattle College’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) bachelor’s of applied science (BAS) program. Had she not found this program, Chaneta observed, “I probably would have had to uproot my life,” because other education programs leading to a bachelor’s degree wouldn’t accommodate someone who was already working. She said, “my desire to go back to school started several years before, and it took me a few years to figure [it] out and find this program.” Several factors contributed to this decision, including the fact that the program came highly recommended. More importantly, she could go to college and continue working full time. Earnings from her day job were needed to pay for the program.
Chaneta graduated from North Seattle College in spring 2020 but obtained a new position using her bachelor’s degree even before she completed the program. Her new job involves working for a state agency which focuses on increasing the training of teachers and the quality of ECE centers. This new job gives her more autonomy than her previous classroom teaching position and provides her with the opportunity to be creative that she always craved.
Chaneta praised North Seattle’s ECE program for encouraging culturally responsive pedagogy and practices that equipped and inspired her to assist other educators in addressing racial inequity in their classrooms. She now more clearly sees how a strong educational foundation relates to a strong democracy and promotes racial equity. Chaneta is inspired to go further in higher education; after a “breather,” she wants to go to graduate school.
Jasen: Global Trade and Logistics, Spring 2021
Jasen is an African American man in his 30s who was born in Seattle and is a first-generation college student. He went to community college in California straight out of high school to play football and run track. He says he was not ready for college then, as it just served as a means to play sports, which was “everything.” At that time, Jasen says, he did not appreciate the value of education.
He eventually transferred to a university in Illinois, but stopped out because he lacked direction and “lost the passion for it.” He returned to Seattle, where he worked for Nike, the post office, and a furniture company. At the furniture company, he worked his way up from sales consultant to management and learned many aspects of international trade and supply chains. He was laid off when the owner decided to close the business.
Workforce education services paid for Jasen’s retraining. Enjoying his previous work and having attended community colleges in the past, he decided to pursue an associate degree in international business at Highline College. He saw college this time as an opportunity to avoid “dead-end” jobs and to provide for more stability and mobility in the labor market. He was nervous going back to school surrounded by students who were straight out of high school, but soon realized how well he could do without the distractions of work and sports.
This time, Jasen brought with him knowledge from the working world and a clear sense of what he needed from his college experience. He became the vice president and then president of the business club to provide opportunities to his fellow students. He took the business club to a case competition event on campus and gathered industry leaders for networking events for students.
He found his way to the bachelor of applied science (BAS) in global trade and logistics through the Center of Excellence in Supply Chain Management (CESCM) at Highline that his advisor told him about. He feels the bachelor’s degree will help him be a part of creating a “circular economy” and creating infrastructure for sustainability. It has also meant a “new life and second chance at opportunity.” He says, “new doors are opening.”
Jasen feels the CCB opportunity “to be in different spaces has been meaningful—being involved in different spaces I didn’t know exist[ed].” He feels “every new class or teacher” he speaks to “is opening up new doors to…what I can do in the now.” For example, when talking to people at the CESCM, he learned about its study abroad program to Vietnam, which involved following the products of two local companies, Brooks shoe company and an apple distributor. He applied, was accepted, and while studying abroad met connections who told him about a position at Brooks doing trade compliance. Jasen got the job, which is providing him new insights on regulatory aspects of global trade work. Jasen appreciated that the courses for his CCB were offered in the evening, so he could gain work experience while enrolled.
When Jasen returned to college this time, he was thinking about earning an associate degree to quickly get back into the workforce. The new opportunities and spaces he has experienced have given him insights and a new direction. A faculty member told Jasen that there is no reason he can’t get a graduate degree, and Jasen now plans to apply to an MBA program.
Diego: Nursing, Fall 2019
Diego is also a man is his 30s. He was born in Mexico before his parents moved to eastern Washington to do seasonal farm work. Diego’s family moved to migrant housing when he was a few years old, and it was there that his sister and brother were born and where all three children were raised. Married when he was 20 years old, Diego and his spouse took up residence with his parents until a recent purchase of their own home nearby.
Despite challenging financial circumstances growing up, Diego has fond memories of his childhood with family and friends, and of his elementary and high school teachers. He describes them as consistently supportive and professional, encouraging all students (50 percent White, 50 percent Latinx) to pursue higher education. He expressed gratitude to teachers who “hammered in” that “all of us could go to college.” Working as a groundskeeper for all four summers of high school, Diego saved enough money to attend the first year of community college without having to work.
Uncertain of what he wanted to study, Diego took a couple of computer science classes at his local community college; however, he rather quickly decided that information technology (IT) was not his calling. He understood that making a good living was important but he also wanted a career that would be fulfilling and he saw that opportunity in nursing. He said, “apart from a good wage and possibly benefits, I saw a lot of room to grow [in nursing]. There are so many nursing branches, and you don’t have to do nursing at all. It’s a good stepping-stone.” He expressed the desire to continue into a master’s program once he graduated and secured a good job. Though his journey took time, including stopping in and out of college so that he could earn enough money for tuition and fees, Diego earned his associate degree and then his bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree at the same college.
Diego explained that the community college made it very easy to go from his associate degree nursing program to the BSN program. He described the BSN program as much more affordable than the similar program offered by a public university in the area. He also appreciated the emphasis on clinical hours that the community college provided, giving him experience in health care settings in the community. He also liked opportunities to use his associate degree to secure employment and help pay for his BSN education. He described himself as “incredibly prepared” for employment and explained that he had overcome “some of the jitters a lot of new nurses have when entering the profession.”
Following graduation, Diego got a job working at the same public health department where he completed clinical training for his BSN. His experience included working with the HIV program, communicable diseases, and the immunization clinic. His work with communicable diseases and public health placed him at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still thinking of graduate school at some point, Diego says his work life is full and rewarding, and he can’t imagine doing anything else right now, while his community is fighting a pandemic.
Findings and Discussion
In interviews with the three students profiled along with 14 additional interviewees, we observed several themes emerging around the experience and perceived value of CCB programs for current or recent students. CCB programs provided many of the interviewees, including two with previous bachelor’s degrees, an option to pursue a career change. For some respondents, that meant getting out of the “dead-end” loop of jobs and moving toward more job security and economic mobility. Other attractive aspects of the CCB programs included an affordable path to a bachelor’s degree, flexible programs designed around working adults’ schedules, and classes available locally. These programs also provided a path to a bachelor’s degree at institutions the students were comfortable or familiar with, as several had attended community colleges prior to their CCB programs.
Some interviewees found four-year institutions too “intimidating,” “elitist,” or “large,” and thus not an option. We heard variations of this sentiment from several interviewees:
I couldn’t see me going to [large university in state] or a big college like that. Going to a community college for me is where I’d want to go. I wouldn’t want to go to a big college for a bachelor’s degree; I would feel too overwhelmed. Here [a community college conferring CCB degrees] I feel overwhelmed, but I feel I can still approach the teachers and staff. A university or college, I couldn’t see that happening.
Several interviewees stated the importance of having an option nearby, as they did not want to do an all-online program for a baccalaureate. They wanted to interact with faculty face to face. One student described the sentiment we heard from other interviewees who appreciated face-to-face interactions and support from faculty at the community college, and who wanted that experience for their bachelor’s degree:
I did look at other options. Other colleges…all basic online options, and I really felt like I wanted [an] option to have good interaction with professors. [Community college] provides that. Instead of being 1 in 200 students. Student-teacher ratio is much lower at [community college]. I have potential to learn more through interaction.
Some students had a negative association with education from the time they attended high school, creating a reluctance to attend college when they were younger. Several CCB students went to work right out of high school in jobs that did not require a degree. Some students we interviewed did attend a community college, where they secured certificates or associate degrees to prepare them for employment. Later, as they advanced in their careers, they could see how these earlier experiences at the community college served as stepping-stones to a baccalaureate degree.
Once the CCB degree was obtained, it also provided momentum to enable several students to pursue master’s degrees. One of the CCB graduates interviewed had already completed her master’s degree, and two others were working on or accepted into master’s programs. Four more students and graduates were considering a master’s degree in the future, suggesting that CCB students desire opportunities to continue their education and advance in their careers. The pursuit of graduate education by post-CCB students is underestimated and understudied in the literature.
At some point during their CCB programs, all three profiled students worked full-time jobs while enrolled in full-time study. They and 13 other students appreciated that the programs were designed around working adults’ schedules, offering online and hybrid instruction coupled to night and weekend classes. Both Diego and Chaneta worked full time to pay for college while supporting their families. Jasen found a full-time position in his field from connections made during his CCB program. That position enabled him to apply what he was learning in college to his job. Their experiences speak to the opportunity provided by the CCBs, as course scheduling was designed around students need to work full-time.
For 15 of the 17 students interviewed, including the three profiled, motivation for their degrees included searching for meaningful, stable, and economically sound careers. Chaneta’s CCB program allowed her to advance in a career in ECE that would use her intellect and creativity. She also appreciated that a career in ECE would allow her to impact racial equity through teaching in early childhood classrooms. Jasen’s CCB and the new knowledge and experiences it provided expanded his options for more stable employment and also for graduate school. He was motivated by the fact that his CCB program would allow him to help create more sustainable infrastructure in the supply chain world. Diego’s BSN program offered a career pathway with financial stability for his family while allowing him to fulfill his desire to help his community. He spoke passionately about the need to address the public health crisis associated with COVID-19 that was disproportionately impacting racially minoritized populations in his community. Drawing on their accumulated knowledge and life experiences, all three students found a path to improving their own lives, their families’ lives, as well as lives in their communities in their CCB programs.
Implications for Future Research
In a recent study, Bahr, Columbus, and Chen (2021) found older, returning students were less likely to complete bachelor’s degrees than younger students. The authors argued that CCBs may offer opportunities for baccalaureate degrees that do not exist currently for older students, which is also what we heard from many CCB students we interviewed. CCB programs are growing across the country, but more research is needed to understand student experiences and to help ensure that policies and practices in new and continuing CCB programs support underserved students.
To help close education equity gaps, future research should include more qualitative research to examine who the CCB students are throughout the country and what influences their journey to and experiences within their degree programs. Mixed methods research would be valuable to understand what factors allow for the retention of CCB students once they start the degree programs. More research is also needed on how CCBs influence graduate school trajectories.
Appendix: Data and Methods
We interviewed 17 CCB students and recent graduates between November 2019 and May 2020, with many interviews extending into the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic. They attended six Washington community and technical colleges (Bellevue, Columbia-Basin, Highline, South Seattle, North Seattle, and Green River).
We asked leaders of CCB degree programs in these colleges to identify candidates for participation in the study among students who were enrolled or recent graduates in these programs. We told CCB administrators and faculty that we were interested in finding students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students. We wanted to ensure that the sample of students would include individuals who are members of groups historically underserved at the baccalaureate degree level.
We reached out to potential interviewees via email. To participate, participants read and signed a consent form and determined if they wanted us to use their names or a pseudonym for research reports. The University of Washington Institutional Review Board determined that this research was exempt from full board review.
We designed the interview protocol using the method developed by Seidman (2006) who advocates for semi-structured, in-depth interviewing to understand how individuals experience specified phenomena, such as being students and graduates of CCB degree programs. Guided by Seidman’s framework, we conducted three semi-structured interviews with 11 of the 17 students identified for the study throughout the 2019–20 academic year, and we interviewed the remaining six students either one or two times. The interview process was truncated for this latter group because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic during spring 2020. This decision was made to avoid over-burdening the students with an additional commitment during this distressing time.
The interview protocol was divided into three major parts, with the first part focused on the students’ journey before entering their CCB program, focusing on their prior education and employment. We asked about personal, family, community, and high school experiences, and we asked whether they attended college prior to enrolling in their CCB program. We delved into understanding student experiences and how they make meaning out of those experiences. In the second part, we learned about the students’ experiences as learners in CCB programs, including what it is like to be a CCB student, what they value about their CCB programs of study, and what they think could be improved to enhance their learning experiences. The final part focused on CCB student and graduate experiences with employment after having enrolled in the program. For those who had graduated, we asked what the programs meant to their employment opportunities, their career paths, and their life trajectory. We sought information about jobs and anticipated careers, including satisfaction with their employment situation and compensation, as well as interest in pursuing additional education at the graduate level.
Interviews were recorded and notes taken. Researchers also wrote memos for each interview and shared them with the participant and asked for input and factual corrections the next time they met. To analyze the interview responses, we followed an iterative process to identify major themes. The three researchers who conducted interviews met and discussed themes they were noticing among their interviewees.
Three student stories were written up in more depth using a narrative format to highlight the students’ experiences and perspectives, including capturing verbatim responses. We used peer debriefing and member checking to minimize threats to the validity of the study (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016).
A majority of the 17 students were female (N=10) and in their 30s or older (N=13). Our sample was 59 percent racially minoritized students (N=10) and 53 percent first-generation college students (N=9). Nearly 30 percent (N=5) were immigrants to this country or first-generation immigrants. The degree program students interviewed were a part of included: IT, software development, nursing, youth development, international business, hospitality management, global trade and logistics, professional technical education and instructional design, sustainable building design, and early childhood education.
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