New law allows California community colleges to offer 4-year degrees

150 150 Michelle Bergmann

Graduation at El Camino College in Torrance, CA. (Photo Credit: Tamara Evans/Flickr)

Starting next fall California’s community colleges will take a step up in higher education. As part of a pilot program, 15 selected community colleges will offer four-year bachelor degrees in specialty fields like information management, technology or dental hygiene.

“That’s fantastic! I wish that program was going around when I was a freshman,” said Alex Carter a third-year student at Santa Monica City College studying digital media and art history.

Signed by Governor Jerry Brown last week, SB850 is the first to allow community colleges to become key contributors to California by offering bachelor degrees in in-demand fields.

“SB850 is going to change the face of higher education in California forever…there is really no turning back,” said state Senator Marty Block (D-San Diego), author of the legislation.

The bill was highly supported by chambers of commerce and employers up and down the state. which is no surprise considering that by 2025 California will need one million bachelor’s degrees to fill available jobs.

“And there is no way the CSU system could accommodate for those needs,” said Block. “Part of the problem is not that there aren’t enough jobs but that there is a mismatch in training between jobs and students. This will strengthen the economy because we will have well qualified employees to be more gainfully employed.”

Under the new legislation, community colleges can only offer speciality education programs that are not already offered by a nearby university. This will avoid duplicate efforts and level the playing field between community colleges and universities all while growing the number post-secondary degrees.

“If you are an employer that needs tech-savvy employees, these degrees will highly train students in those areas that are not necessarily offered from a Berkeley or Stanford,” said Block.

The California Economic Summit has been an advocate for improving the state economy through regional competitiveness and job creation. Building up education programs in the areas of California – like rural areas with limited access to universities – that need skilled workers would be a win-win.

“Any work that our colleges can do to support the needs of the regional employers, it’s a positive thing,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, superintendent-president of Long Beach City College and a Summit Steering Committee co-chair. “I applaud the government for allowing this kind of experimentation.”

The tuition costs of the four-year community college degree are approximately $10,500 as compared to approximately $22,000 at a CSU. And for some students, being able to earn their bachelors degree at a community college makes it easier to stay on track. They can avoid full classes, expensive tuition or a lengthy transition to a four-year school.

Some classes are non-transferable…this would make it a lot easier,” said James Keene, a second year at SMC earning his GE.

According to Block there are already at least 40 colleges in both rural and urban areas interested in applying for the pilot program, Grossmont College, San Diego Mesa College and Southwestern College, to name a few.

“There is tremendous need for these degrees and I think we will end up having two or three times applicants than we have slots,” said Brice Harris, chancellor of California Community Colleges.

California will become the 22nd state in the nation to offer four-year degrees at community colleges. Currently, the state is below the national average for percent of adults holding a post-secondary degree, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. The hope for the new bill is that the state will become more competitive in the national economy and workforce. 

“I really do believe this is the dawning of a wonderful expansion of the mission of California Community Colleges.” said Harris. “It will be slow at first…but I think the future for Californians who want more education to be competitive in the workplace is a very bright one.”


Michelle Bergmann

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