Creating Accessible Bachelor’s Options for Adults at Community Colleges

Blog Post
Dec. 6, 2021

As a researcher studying access, completion, and outcomes of community college baccalaureate programs, I hear concerns that these programs aren’t needed. Regional public universities and private for-profit institutions already offer baccalaureate degrees. Why should community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees too?

To explore this question, my colleague Dr. Debra Bragg and I interviewed 12 students—mostly racially minoritized, first generation women over 30—from Washington to find out why these students enrolled at community colleges rather than another institution to earn a bachelor’s degree. What we found illuminates the value of these programs for states and communities that want to create access for adult students.

First of all, these students did not feel like they had another feasible option to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Many said that without the community college option, they would not have enrolled anywhere. One student responded, “I just don’t think I would have gone to college, I looked around for something else but this was really the only thing I found that would work.” In other words, while universities might perceive community college bachelor’s programs as causing undue competition between institutions, some students aren’t even considering universities at all. If they choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree, it’s the community college or nothing as far as they’re concerned.

These students had familiar reasons for enrolling in baccalaureate programs, and most were focused on career opportunities. They wanted to get out of a “dead end loop” of jobs. They perceived the baccalaureate as a way to get a more secure position. Most of the students had worked in high touch, public facing jobs in child care, food service, and retail. As COVID upended lives and the workforce, the students talked about how they hoped the baccalaureate degree would provide them with the opportunity to work from home and leave the “essential worker” class.

But while they had familiar reasons for wanting a bachelor’s degree, they had unique needs that they felt were best addressed in a community college. Students noted that the CCB degree was affordable. Tuition in a CCB program in Washington state hovers around $7,000 for the academic year, considerably less than the cost of a public regional university or for-profit institution. Several students also mentioned that although low in cost, community colleges had a credibility that they felt other options lacked. One student discussed how he considered “some kind of code camp, and I looked at a program at [for-profit institution] but, I was just skeptical about what I would be paying for.”

In addition to cost considerations, CCB programs are accessible for the schedules of working adults. Many programs offer flexible schedules, block scheduling, hybrid degree options, and classes held mostly in the late afternoon and evening, allowing students to continue in their jobs and meet other obligations. Unlike younger, full-time students, CCB students are likely to prioritize meeting family needs and continuing to work over college. If something in their schedule has to give, it’s likely to be school. Having access to bachelor’s programs that acknowledge their many roles in life makes all the difference.

Finally, community college seems more approachable and achievable than other institutions for students I interviewed. One student said “I couldn’t see me going to [Big University Name]... 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 [Community College Name] I feel overwhelmed but I feel I can still approach the teachers and staff. A university or college, I couldn’t see that happening.” Many of the students had previous community college credits and experience and felt comfortable in the community college environment.

Community college baccalaureates are becoming more popular with 24 states now authorizing CCBs. Recent work details the increasing popularity of this strategy particularly in applied occupational fields. As states consider strategies for increasing the population of adults with a bachelor’s degree, especially older adults and those with “some credit, no degree,” community college baccalaureates are an option they shouldn’t overlook.

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Related Topics
Higher Education Access and Affordability