Making the Case for Community College Baccalaureates

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Dec. 13, 2022

While good jobs can certainly be found without a college degree, the data show baccalaureate degrees are the most reliable path to the middle class. The baccalaureate degree has meaning in the labor market that gives graduates economic and social mobility distinct from the associate degree and other sub-baccalaureate credentials. But the bachelor’s degree carries weight beyond the amount of money in one’s bank account: it is a down payment on individual quality of life and also promotes the type of civic engagement that is essential to community well-being.

However, access to bachelor’s degree programs is still inequitable, disadvantaging racially minoritized, low-income, and other historically marginalized groups of students. In half of states, community colleges are stepping up to offer bachelor’s programs that provide local access and open economic and professional doors for students. In our brief published last week, we offer methods to identify when more bachelor’s degrees are needed and why community college baccalaureates can meet that need.

Decisions to start and expand collegiate programs should be made carefully, using data to show how degrees address unmet need. In the case of community college baccalaureate (CCB) degrees, these decisions should rest on demonstrating how underserved populations can secure credentials leading to living-wage jobs and career progression. Multiple data sources should be tapped to show how the supply of baccalaureate graduates should change to meet the employment demands at the regional and local levels, including: labor market data sources, just-in-time analytical tools, and qualitative information on program quality, transfer options, and credential requirements.

For example, the need for baccalaureate prepared information security analysts far outstrips bachelor’s graduates in this field in the state of Illinois. Large mismatches between demand for workers and the supply of new graduates occur in most of Illinois’ 10 economic regions, with the most serious disparity in the Chicago area, as you can see in Figures 7 and 8 from our report below. While Illinois does not yet authorize community colleges to confer baccalaureate degrees, these data point to a serious shortage of workers trained in cyber security that existing higher education providers are not meeting. Not even close. Imagine what could be if community colleges in Illinois were empowered to meet this need.

Of course, as with any change in higher education, CCBs have their critics. Even in some of the 25 states that allow CCBs, it can be challenging to stand up new programs. A recent kerfuffle in California is a good case in point. The California State University (CSU) Academic Senate is proposing to grant itself veto power over new CCB programs after 2021 legislation expanding baccalaureate degree conferral authority by community colleges. As Matt Reed noted in Inside Higher Education, the unilateral power the CSU Senate is seeking over community colleges is nothing less than “absurd.” It is essentially asking to keep the system the same – maintain the status quo – and stop community colleges from granting baccalaureate degrees that could help to meet critical local workforce needs, regardless of what labor market data show or which students the system leaves out. Instead, we propose using supply and demand analysis to observe where CCB programs are needed in California.

Without changing, systems of public higher education that were built to sort students into tracks – research universities, state and regional universities, and community colleges – will continue to produce inequitable outcomes. The unfortunate result of policies like the one proposed by the CSU Senate is that historically marginalized students who struggle to access and complete higher education continue to face a litany of barriers to get bachelor’s degrees. Ensuring the status quo persists means historically marginalized students and communities who desire baccalaureate education are left wanting -- again. Addressing the concerns of CCB critics is best done with an evidence-based picture of how CCB degrees can help improve individual lives, strengthen economies, and build communities.

Like all baccalaureate degrees, CCB degrees should be offered where there is compelling evidence that they can benefit current and future students. When the case can be made, CCB degrees should be authorized to enable graduates to secure good jobs and pursue career paths that improve their lives and address unmet needs in their communities.

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Workforce Development & CTE Higher Education Access and Affordability