Why Community College Bachelor’s Degrees? Similarities and Differences Across Urban and Rural Settings
Sept. 28, 2022
In 2017, two Texas colleges, over 200 miles apart, were each sorting through community challenges. Austin Community College, serving the second fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, was racing to prepare students for the many jobs cropping up in a variety of economic sectors. Meanwhile, 35 miles east of Dallas in the town of Terrell, leaders at Trinity Valley Community College’s health sciences center were considering how to ensure that local nurses could advance in the profession without uprooting themselves from the community to earn higher degrees.
Austin and Terrell are not alone in their respective goals and challenges. For many rural communities like Terrell, preparing and retaining health care, education, and business professionals is essential to achieve a strong local economy and healthy community. In growing metro areas like Austin, it is critical to ensure that new, well-paying jobs are accessible to residents, not just to area newcomers. Meanwhile, across communities of all sizes, education requirements are rising in health care, early childhood education, and other sectors. While a certificate or associate degree might have been sufficient to enter and progress in these occupations in the past, employers increasingly expect bachelor’s degrees.
As it turns out, there is a strategy that can address challenges like these in rural and urban communities alike: allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in fields for which there is high demand from students and employers and insufficient supply from local four-year institutions. In Texas, both of these community colleges are already connecting local students with workforce training, occupational certifications, and a wide range of associate degrees. Community college students tend to be older, lower-income, and more likely to be working than their peers in other colleges and universities. Half of Indigenous and Latinx college students in the country attend community colleges, as well as 40 percent of Black students. Community colleges serve as critical access points for many students historically underserved in higher education and root their work deeply in the needs of their community.
Bringing the opportunity to earn bachelor’s degrees to the community college can create needed pathways to the degree in a way that is accessible and affordable for local students who stand to benefit. Now authorized in 25 states, community college bachelor’s (CCB) programs are usually applied in nature and closely connected to local economic needs. As of 2022, there were 142 community colleges with at least one bachelor’s degree program and 565 CCB programs nationwide. Following a successful pilot program of three colleges, Texas passed a new law in 2017 expanding CCB authorization to almost all Texas community colleges. And this is where Austin and Trinity Valley’s journeys to meet local challenges with their own bachelor’s degree programs began.
This brief depicts where urban and rural community colleges are offering CCB programs, what types of programs those are, and the number of students they serve. It then explores how CCBs impact particular rural and urban communities around Austin and Trinity Valley, along with Central Wyoming College and San Diego Mesa College, with a focus on the community roots and purposes of the programs in urban and rural areas. I find that while rural colleges may provide the only geographic access to a bachelor’s degree in their community, for urban colleges CCBs offered a more affordable way for residents to tap into well-paying, growing occupations. These colleges and their programs represent a few of the many ways CCBs can connect students with local roots to new opportunities in the places they call home.
Mapping Rural and Urban Institutions and Programs
Where Are Rural and Urban Community College Bachelor’s (CCB) Institutions?
Using indicators of rurality and urbanization in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges’ Rural-Serving Institutions data set, along with New America’s 2021 inventory of CCB programs, I constructed a group of 25 rural colleges and a group of 25 urban colleges with CCB programs. The 25 rural institutions were located in 15 different states. Meanwhile, the urban group of institutions were mainly clustered around a handful of large cities. Of the 25 urban colleges, 11 were located in either the Los Angeles, Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, or Seattle metropolitan statistical areas. There are several states containing at least one institution in both the urban group and the rural group: California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Washington.
How Many CCB Programs Exist in Rural vs. Urban Institutions?
Institutions with CCB programs vary considerably in the number of programs they offer, and this holds for both the rural and the urban groups of institutions. The map below depicts these differences, with the size of circles corresponding to the number of programs that institution offers.
Note that small circles—those with one or two CCB programs—predominate. However, there are institutions with a large number of programs, notably urban institutions in central and southern Florida and rural institutions in Georgia and northern Florida. Both these states have had over 20 years to build up the number of programs, considerably longer than most CCB-authorizing states.
As the chart below shows, the plurality of institutions in the urban group as well as the rural group have only one CCB program. At least for the urban group, this is partly explained by a large number of California institutions that were limited to one CCB program under the state’s pilot program. As of 2021, California may approve up to 30 new CCB programs statewide per year, and districts and institutions are no longer limited to one program. Time will tell if California community colleges opt to pursue many more programs or focus on one or a few areas of study.
In both rural and urban categories, there is only a small group of institutions with a large number of programs (10 or more).
What Areas of Study Are Most Common in Rural vs. Urban CCB Programs?
Since CCBs are often used to prepare residents for local professions, it is unsurprising that common areas of study vary between the most rural and the most urban CCB institutions. There are more than twice as many rural CCB programs in agriculture, engineering technology, and nursing as in the urban group. Urban community colleges offer three times as many IT programs and nearly twice as many health professions programs (other than nursing) as the rural group.
Some similarities emerge from these data as well. In both urban and rural programs, teacher preparation programs are common. It is the most common area of study in the rural group and second most common, after health professions, in the urban group. The prevalence of education bachelor’s degrees may indicate a desire to recruit and support local candidates for the teaching profession who know and have roots in the community where they are likely to stay.
How Many People Graduate from Rural CCB vs. Urban CCB Programs?
While urban and rural colleges may have similar numbers of programs per institution, rural programs graduate considerably fewer students than CCB programs at urban community colleges. As the chart below shows, the group of urban institutions graduated more students than the rural group in every area of study except engineering technology and agriculture.
Exploring CCB Program Value and Community Connection
The following sections take a closer look at four institutions with CCB programs operating on their campuses. Understanding the rationale behind these CCB programs, the structure, local economic opportunities for graduates, and leaders’ perspectives on the value of these programs illuminates the community connection that guides both rural and urban institutions in different ways.
Growing Your Own: Trinity Valley, RN-BSN
When bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) programs were authorized at community colleges under Texas law in 2017, Trinity Valley Community College moved quickly to build a program in its expansive, mostly rural service area. Around 5,500 students are enrolled at TVCC, 26 percent of whom are Latinx and 12 percent are Black. Nationally, racial and ethnic diversity among nurses lags behind the national population. Gaps in representation for Latinx and Black nurses are wider at the bachelor’s degree level than at the associate degree level. The bachelor’s degree for nurses at TVCC offers a local path for nurses that could help facilitate a professional workforce that mirrors the diversity of the community.
Meanwhile, employers are increasingly expecting nurses to hold bachelor’s degrees, and nursing professional organizations are calling for RNs with associate degrees to further their education and pursue a bachelor’s degree. Programs for these RNs to return to their studies and earn a bachelor’s degree have become commonplace in universities and are increasingly becoming available in community colleges.
Most nurses who earned associate degrees at TVCC went on to pursue a BSN elsewhere, but it was clear that a significant share of students were stopping at the associate degree level. Helen Reid, provost of the TVCC Health Sciences Center while the BSN was launching, says the college’s goal was to provide a path for students for whom RN-BSN programs elsewhere were not a good fit. “The advantage to the students is the cost and the familiarity with their instructors,” she says. “We have a lot of first-generation college students, [who are] more wary of the big universities.”
The program launched in 2020 and is structured to support working students while keeping tuition low. The RN-BSN consists of 30 credit hours, mostly delivered online with a few required in-person components per semester. Students engage in practical experiences akin to clinicals, with program faculty overseeing their progress in leadership development and community health. There is a selective application process for the RN-BSN, which prioritizes graduates from TVCC’s associate degree program as well as in-district residents. Tuition for the full program falls under $4,000, with tuition for the BSN equal to other TVCC programs.
A common challenge for institutions pursuing their first CCB program is preparing for accreditation changes. This process can take a long time and require a variety of changes in the institution, from increased library holdings to new requirements for faculty degree attainment. At Trinity Valley, more nursing faculty would have to earn terminal degrees to meet its new accreditation standard. Faculty stepped up in a big way to meet this requirement. Four faculty members hit the books again themselves to earn doctoral degrees, building their skills, benefiting their students, and overshooting accreditors’ requirements for the program.
The program’s connection to the community came into full focus during the pandemic. While the RN-BSN is a program for already-licensed nurses, students do take on projects in the community that offer a chance to develop their leadership and public health skills. When COVID-19 vaccines became available in early 2021, BSN students at Trinity Valley worked to share reliable information about the vaccines with the community and encourage vaccination as part of their public health clinical experience.
In spring 2022, 19 graduates received the first bachelor’s degrees ever awarded by Trinity Valley. The college’s work to provide affordable, accessible bachelor’s degree opportunities for local nurses is already yielding results—and was serving the community before these nurses had walked across the graduation stage.
Building the Community: Central Wyoming College, Organizational Management and Leadership
As a bill authorizing bachelor’s degrees at Wyoming community colleges made it to the governor’s desk in spring 2019, a flurry of activity started at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, a town of just over 10,000. In only six weeks, leaders prepared a program proposal for their first bachelor of applied science degree, which launched in the fall of 2020.
College leaders had had their eye on the opportunity to address local education and training needs through bachelor’s degrees for some time. Lael Noonan, director of BAS programs at Central Wyoming, says, “a lot of our reasoning for wanting to do this is to keep people here so that they can expand and go in a different direction without having to pick up and move.” The University of Wyoming, the only public university in the state, sits over 200 miles to the southeast.
Noonan sees bachelor’s programs as an expansion of local access to further education beyond the associate degree. “As a person who was raised here and has a lot of generations of family who've been raised here, I think it allows options,” she says. “I think it's a big deal to be able to get [a bachelor’s-level] education on a campus—a physical campus is huge for individuals. And again, I feel it really boils down to options.”
The first bachelor’s programs to come to CWC were the business and entrepreneurial leadership and tribal leadership concentrations within a bachelor of applied science in organizational management and leadership. While some CCB programs are designed for graduates of particular associate programs, others are more broadly applicable. Residents with any associate degree can apply to the organizational management and leadership program, which means that students with a variety of professional and educational backgrounds can participate more fully in local economic development, including the development and growth of small businesses.
Leaders of local Indigenous nations worked closely with CWC to develop the tribal leadership concentration within the first BAS program, supporting Indigenous students’ growth and development. The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, particularly, contributed to the development of the BAS tribal leadership program. Classes for the tribal leadership concentration are available across several CWC sites, including those located on the Wind River Reservation. A Native American-serving non-tribal institution, nearly half of Indigenous students enrolled in Wyoming community colleges are at Central Wyoming.
In fall 2021, the college introduced two additional bachelor’s program options. One was an outdoor program leadership as a third concentration in the organizational management and leadership program, and the other was a stand-alone bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. Tourism plays an important role in the local economy, and the college saw a need to combine leadership and business management skills with sector-specific knowledge in natural tourism.
For the early childhood education program, students must have an associate degree in early childhood education to enroll. This profession is one of many where employment requirements for bachelor’s degrees are becoming more common. Graduates of the early childhood education program may seek certification in preschool through third grade, as well as an endorsement for special education. Students are mostly online, putting a bachelor’s degree within reach for students working already who may not be able to come to campus frequently.
The first class of four graduates earned their BAS in organizational management and leadership in spring 2022. Strong and growing enrollment in existing bachelor’s programs speaks to the early work CWC put in to match programs to residents’ interests and professional opportunities. As the college continues to recruit students into bachelor’s degree programs, it provides rural students the opportunity to deepen their community roots. As Noonan says, “this is what we are: we are rural. We're not an organization put in a rural community. We are a rural college. I think that that’s just part and parcel of what we do.”
Furthering Equity: San Diego Mesa College, Health Information Management
San Diego Mesa College successfully built a program at top speed to respond to the local need for health information management (HIM) professionals when California created its CCB pilot in 2014. San Diego Mesa is the largest college in the San Diego Community College District, with approximately 18,000 students enrolled. The college is a Hispanic Serving Institution, with 40 percent of the student body identifying as Latinx. Just over one-third of the student body is 25 or older.
The college is surrounded by several large health systems, with a range of hospitals, clinics, and other facilities in regular need of employees with advanced technical skills to serve their community in a variety of roles. California community colleges were not permitted to offer bachelor’s programs that exist anywhere in the University of California or California State University systems. So, while HIM jobs were available in San Diego and education expectations were rising in the profession, HIM rose to the surface as an option for the college’s pilot bachelor’s degree program.
While HIM positions were once attainable by individuals with a high school diploma, the profession has become more complex in recent years. Many employers now expect employees to have the knowledge and skills gained in a bachelor’s degree program. BS program director Connie Renda remembers a conversation with an employer partner that sparked consideration of a BS at San Diego Mesa. The chief medical information officer at a hospital next to the college’s main campus invited her to lunch to discuss the health system’s needs, outlining skills needed to thrive in HIM careers—skills that could be delivered in a bachelor’s degree program. With opportunity waiting for graduates literally across the street from campus—in a city Professor Renda calls a “medical metropolis”—conversations started about possible curricula and program structure.
But there is a deeper reason for adding a bachelor’s degree option at San Diego Mesa. “The reason we're doing this is to have this bachelor’s program accessible and affordable to people of color and people who couldn't necessarily get a bachelor's degree or never thought about getting a bachelor's degree,” says Renda. “We were already talking about pathways, and we're already talking about equity, so it was a natural progression to say, ‘this is why we also allow these affordable $10,000 bachelor's degrees for students who wouldn’t normally have access to them.’” Indeed, tuition and fees for the bachelor’s degree program, including the first two years at the associate level, reach just over $10,000, which is considerably less than at many other institutions in the state. And between 2016 and 2020, nearly three in four students who enrolled in San Diego Mesa’s BS program were individuals of color.
The California Community College Board of Governors approved San Diego Mesa’s BS program in March 2015, and the first students enrolled in fall 2016. The program is designed to encourage strong peer relationships and to welcome students into the program at multiple points in their education. Interested students can enter the BS program in their first, second, or third year, depending on previous college credentials and experience in HIM. Along with classroom-based learning, students must complete required clinical placements to earn the BS. The program uses a cohort model, with each group taking two courses together per eight-week term.
The first graduates of San Diego Mesa’s BS program, a group of 16, earned their degrees in spring 2018. Since a law passed in 2021 authorizing up to 30 new CCBs in California per year, there is no doubt that other community colleges in the Golden State will look to the success of San Diego Mesa College and other pilot institutions to see how a needed bachelor’s degree program honors new professional growth and students’ local roots.
Deepening Roots: Austin Community College, Software Development
Austin Community College was quick to begin building bachelor’s degree programs once the governor signed a 2017 CCB bill allowing community colleges to create up to three CCB degrees. After launching its nursing program, the college quickly turned to create a second bachelor’s program in software development. Linda Smarzik, dean of computer science and information technology at ACC, says, “software development is the number one job here…so, for us it was an easy slam dunk.”
ACC is a Hispanic Serving Institution and welcomes a student body that is just under 40 percent Latinx. In a tech hub like Austin, creating educational opportunities focused on residents makes perfect sense and holds implications for racial equity in the local labor market. “We consider ourselves a regional resource,” says Mike Midgley, vice chancellor of instruction at ACC. “We're supported by the region, and our students are from the region, and—more importantly,” he said, "our students stay in the region.”
The software development program is crafted to support the educational progression of residents who already have an associate degree in information technology. The bachelor’s program includes training in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Classes are delivered through several modalities, from fully online to hybrid to competency-based models, offering flexibility to students for whom commute time, care responsibilities, and jobs may limit availability to come to campus.
While universities close to community colleges sometimes feel CCBs compete with their programs, Smarzik explained that was not an issue at all for Austin’s software development program. “There was no problem convincing anybody that this was needed—from the University of Texas to Texas State in our 50-mile radius,” she says. “The more we can produce together as a whole, the better.” As of spring 2022, the Austin metro area had over 4,500 job postings in software development and closely related professions. With a maximum enrollment of 120 students in ACC’s bachelor’s degree program, Dean Smarzik notes, “we're barely scratching the surface!”
Texas has further expanded opportunities for CCBs through a 2021 law. Community colleges are now permitted to offer up to five bachelor’s degrees. As ACC launches its third CCB program in manufacturing engineering technology in fall 2022 and approaches its 50th anniversary in 2023, leaders are carefully considering what might come next for their slate of bachelor’s degree offerings and what new programs might best connect with students’ educational and professional goals. Whatever might be around the bend, a local opportunity for residents will be at the center.
CCB authorization continues to spread to more states, and more colleges are launching bachelor’s degree programs each year in communities small and large. My research highlights how colleges in rural and urban areas may conceptualize the need for CCBs differently while sharing a commitment to providing equitable access to bachelor’s degrees.
Differences between the rural and urban colleges highlighted here clustered around the economic purpose of CCBs. For the two rural colleges, CCBs provided the only bachelor’s programs offered at a local college. And unsurprisingly, rural CCBs overall had fewer graduates than urban programs. For the two urban colleges profiled, CCBs offered a more affordable way for residents to tap into well-paying, growing occupations in their home community.
Similarities that emerged included a focus on recruiting students who would not otherwise pursue a bachelor’s degree. Offering bachelor’s options that center on equity and are affordable and accessible came up in conversations with program leaders from both rural and urban CCB institutions. Whether a college was located in a densely populated urban center of millions or a town of not quite 10,000, CCB programs profiled in this report were designed to honor students’ local roots, treat community connections as an asset, and prioritize the chance to earn a bachelor’s degree at a familiar, trusted, easily accessible institution.
Appendix A: Quantitative Data
Quantitative data from this report came from three sources:
- New America’s 2021 national inventory of CCB institutions and programs
- The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)
- The Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges (ARRC)’s Rural-Serving Institution data set
New America’s national inventory provided the state, institution name, program name, Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) code, and year of state CCB authorization.
IPEDS data included the number of 2019-20 bachelor’s graduates by CIP code and institutional ID.
ARRC’s data set centers around the rural-serving institution (RSI) index. This index is comprised of a series of institutional and geographic characteristics designed to provide a more nuanced indicator of an institution’s rurality than any one of these components alone. The RSI index is a continuous variable, with higher values for more rural-serving colleges.
I used the RSI to make a first cut of institutions for both the rural and urban categories, using the lowest 25 RSI institutions included in New America’s CCB inventory as an initial urban group and the 25 colleges with the highest RSI scores as an initial rural group. While the far side of the continuous RSI variable does not designate an urban-serving institution, the RSI was useful to make a preliminary grouping with the understanding that additional analysis would be necessary to ensure colleges were appropriately assigned to each group, particularly the urban group.
From there, I observed the Rural-Urban Continuum Code (RUCC) for each institution in the rural group and the urban group, as modified in ARRC’s RSI data set. RUCC exist on a 1–6 scale, with a low RUCC designating a high-population metropolitan area and higher RUCC indicating micropolitan or rural areas. All institutions in the rural group had a modified RUCC between 4–6, while all institutions in the urban group had a modified RUCC of 1.
Looking beyond the colleges’ modified RUCC, I then determined that all 25 urban institutions were located in one of the 30 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the country based on 2020-21 Census bureau population estimates. Furthermore, all 25 rural institutions had IPEDS urbanization codes of “town: distant,” “town: remote,” or “rural: fringe.” The group of urban institutions had IPEDS urbanization codes within the broader “suburb” and “city” categories.
Appendix B: Institutional Profile Selection and Qualitative Data
The selection process for institutional profiles began with the full list of colleges with at least one approved CCB program in New America’s 2021 CCB inventory. The first step was to eliminate institutions in states where all or almost all community colleges in the state have at least one bachelor’s degree program and have been most studied: Florida and Washington. Next, I limited the list of possible colleges to highlight to those in states with a legislative or regulatory environment with considerable CCB growth potential. I then further limited the list of possibilities to those with at least 25 percent enrollment of racially minoritized students. I selected the four institutions profiled here were selected from the remaining list based on that fact that, together, they would create an interesting mix of CCB programs and would include at least one program in the most common areas of study (business, health professions, nursing, IT, and education).
Either alone or with my colleagues, Elizabeth Meza and Sophie Chopin, I conducted semi-structured interviews via Zoom in spring and summer 2022 with between one and four college leaders at each highlighted institution.
In addition to analysis of interview data, the research process involved reviewing relevant documents pertaining to these institutions’ CCB programs where readily available online, including but not limited to news pieces, institutional promotional materials, program websites, and course/curriculum descriptions.
I would first like to thank the Joyce Foundation and Ascendium Education Group for their support of New America’s work on community college bachelor’s programs, including this brief. I am truly grateful to Iris Palmer and Mary Alice McCarthy who provided invaluable feedback on the research process and brief. I thank Elizabeth Meza and Sophie Chopin for co-interviewing some of our respondents with me. I thank Sabrina Detlef who, as always, made my writing clearer and stronger. Riker Pasterkiewicz, Julie Brosnan, Fabio Murgia, and Rocio Montoya Pereyra offered support with production and communications, and I thank them for their essential work to bring this paper to life. Sydney Pruitt at Austin Community College graciously facilitated all interviews at ACC, for which I am enormously grateful. Finally, I want to express my great appreciation for the time and perspective that each person interviewed offered: Laurie Dillon, Laura Marmolejo, Mike Midgley, Lael Noonan, Helen Reid, Connie Renda, Linda Smarzik, and Brad Tyndall. I hope this brief does justice to your deep commitment to your communities, your students, and your colleges that surfaced so clearly in our conversations.
 See Appendix A for a description of the process used to construct the rural and urban categories.
 Vermont Technical College is included in “Mapping the Community College Baccalaureate,” New America’s 2021 inventory of all CCB institutions and programs. VTC is soon to merge with two other public institutions of higher education in Vermont and will at that point no longer meet our criteria to be considered a CCB institution. As of this writing, it meets criteria, and we therefore include it here.
 For more information on this strategy to prepare new teachers, known as Grow Your Own, see “A 50-State Scan of Grow Your Own Teacher Policies and Programs.”
 The push toward the bachelor’s degree as the standard for registered nurses increased in intensity with the 2010 Institute of Medicine publication titled “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.” In this influential report, the IOM recommended a goal of 80% bachelor’s degree attainment among registered nurses by 2020. While the profession did not meet this goal, bachelor’s degree attainment continues to rise among nurses.
 Please see the accompanying data dictionary for the RSI data set here.