Bachelor’s Programs Bringing Opportunities to Rural Arizonans

Blog Post
a two lane highway with mountains ahead and cacti growing on both sides of the road
Oct. 27, 2023

In 2021, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill into law allowing Arizona community college boards to approve new bachelor’s degree programs. This new law made Arizona the 25th state to allow community colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees, permitting them to propose a bachelor’s degree program to their board for authorization. As of today, 15 programs are on their way to launching in the Grand Canyon State. While most of these programs will be housed in large, urban community colleges, rural-serving colleges are also building bachelor’s programs tailored to their community’s needs. We spoke to leaders at two rural-serving colleges in Arizona, Lauri Dreher at Yavapai College and Allison Landy at Northland Pioneer College, about what this process has been like for them and what’s on the horizon.

Northland Pioneer College (NPC) serves a vast area the size of West Virginia, covering Navajo and Apache counties in northeast Arizona. In the college’s service area, about one-fourth of teachers have no education degree; many have no degree at all. Furthermore, many would-be teachers at NPC were finding it difficult to apply all their earned credits from NPC to a university in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. This often meant that they had to spend extra time and money retaking classes to enter the teaching profession. So, once Governor Ducey had signed the community college bachelor’s bill into law, the decision to develop a Bachelor of Applied Science in Early Childhood Education was an easy one for the college.

After a few years of engaging the community for their guidance and support, the college wrapped up the last steps toward program launch this summer. When accreditors came to campus as part of the substantive change process, several current early childhood education students and recent alumni drove for over an hour from various parts of Navajo and Apache counties to share how NPC had made a difference in their lives and careers. While the program has not yet launched, the college officially passed its substantive accreditation change review and was approved by the Arizona Department of Education as an educator preparation program, the last major steps before the program can begin welcoming students. In fact, the college just opened applications for the BAS program on October 1.

With the central campus about a hundred miles north of Phoenix in Prescott, Yavapai College has six locations across Yavapai County, each with its own academic and occupational focuses spanning from viticulture and culinary science to business and workforce solutions and entrepreneurship. Still, county leaders across industries as diverse as health care and copper mining unanimously advocated for the implementation of a Bachelor of Science in Business, which just launched in the fall 2023 semester. Yavapai College built this program with three concentrations–accounting, entrepreneurship, and organizational management and leadership–ensuring its relevance to residents in various occupational fields. This new bachelor’s program is offered entirely online, though there is an option for some courses in-person if a student so chooses.

To ensure that demand for the bachelor’s program extended beyond employers, college leaders asked instructors of associate-level business classes to listen for student chatter about the bachelor’s program without formally asking for their thoughts. Faculty observed that students, unprompted, were expressing interest and excitement about this upcoming bachelor’s program available at their home institution. This chatter turned into enrollments: three months before the program launched, nearly 200 students had already applied to the bachelor’s program. With the program now underway and 284 students currently enrolled, the college continues to invite residents and current students who could benefit from a local bachelor’s degree option.

After long journeys to build new bachelor’s programs, Allison, Lauri, and their respective colleges have much to celebrate. And both are already working to launch additional bachelor’s degree programs: a bachelor of science in nursing completion program (RN-BSN) at Yavapai and elementary education and applied management at Northland Pioneer. And Lauri and Allison each have advice to offer other rural-serving community colleges interested in offering bachelor’s programs:

Make building bachelor’s programs a collective college effort. As Lauri put it, “every breathing being on this campus needs to know about it, think about it, brainstorm about it. Everybody had to be thinking ‘four-year degree.’” At Yavapai, college leadership consulted with deans and directors across all areas that would need adjustments to accommodate bachelor’s-level students. Involving all stakeholders in the planning process produced a sense of cohesion and shared goals across the institution.

Lead with community needs. At Northland Pioneer, leaders looked to local residents and communities to determine what program was needed and how to make the program accessible and effective for those who would enroll. “Do the work in the community to know exactly what is needed and wanted,” Allison says, “and then bring many partners to the table to ensure the design is right. You cannot rely on what you think is needed. Instead, make sure community support is there, and do the analysis of community needs and assets.”

As Yavapai and Northland Pioneer show, clear communication and community connection make all the difference when introducing new bachelor’s degree opportunities. With strong support from inside and outside the institution, rural-serving colleges like these have a great start to building a successful bachelor’s degree program.

Related Topics
Higher Education Access and Affordability