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Beware of expanding community college bachelor’s degrees, report says

Pierce College math professor Eddie Tchertchian gives L.A. College Promise students test taking tips weeks before their first day of class. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

This story has been updated.

In a report released on Tuesday, California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office warned policymakers against expanding a three-year old pilot program that allows 15 California community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees.

“Given numerous concerns about program selection and consultation, a lack of any graduation or workforce outcomes to date, and problems in financial reporting, the Legislature may wish to exercise caution in expanding the bachelor’s degree pilot program in advance of the final evaluation,” the office said in the report’s executive summary.

The report said California community college officials moved too quickly to approve the programs – which allowed for only a “limited” review of the programs – didn’t consult enough with universities, and created bachelor’s degree programs without a demonstrated need.

The report also questions whether offering the four-year degrees detracts from the core mission of California’s two-year community colleges.

“The bachelor’s degree pilot program in the California Community Colleges is intended to help the state develop strategies to close its projected shortfall of workers with four-year degrees. To meet the legislative requirements of this program, our colleges made rapid progress in establishing these degrees and enrolling students," said California Community College Chancellor's Office Spokesman Paul Feist.

Despite the criticisms, the report said interviews show that the community college bachelor’s programs are popular among students and employers because the programs are easier to enroll in than those at universities and promoted better relationships with employers that led to job offers.

However, the analyst said, data about the success of the program and its financial costs to campuses and students could to be obtained for this report.

"Given numerous concerns about program selection and consultation, a lack of any graduation or workforce outcomes to date, and problems in financial reporting, the Legislature may wish to exercise caution in expanding the bachelor’s degree pilot program in advance of the final evaluation," the report said. The next evaluation is set for 2022, one year before the pilot program is set to expire. The report said it would be difficult to measure graduation from the programs if colleges stop enrolling students some time before the end of the program.

The report could derail efforts by some policymakers to double number of community colleges offering the degrees and add five years to the length of the bachelor's pilot program.

Those are the goals of Senate bill 769, authored by Northern California Senator Jerry Hill.

“I think it is critically important that we do not lose sight of what this program is about: It’s about the future of the workforce of our state, the access we provide to higher education to a broad cross-section of students in California, and the access available to Californians for greater opportunities,” Hill said in an email.

Hill's spokeswoman said the bill is not dead.  

Two years ago, community college administrators whose campuses were picked to offer the bachelor’s degrees praised the move as a step toward increasing the number of Californians ready for careers that require a college degree.

“We’re very excited about the approval,” said Santa Monica College President Chui Tsang at the time. His campus was picked to enroll students in a bachelor’s degree in design.

“This comes at a very important time. The technology industry is exploding on the Westside here. Day after day we hear news of the expansion of technology here in Venice, and Culver City, and in Playa Vista. All of these areas are really fueled by this economy," he said

Southern California community college campuses offering the bachelor’s programs include West L.A. College, Santa Monica College, and Santa Ana College. The degrees include automotive studies, dental hygiene, and mortuary science.

The report said people who want to study mortuary science aren't required to have a bachelor's degree to earn a state license or industry certification but Cypress College, which offers the degree, defended it's program. 

"The degree was developed with input from our industry partners (which include Rose Hills and Forest Lawn)," said Cypress College spokesman Marc Posner in an email.

"As the industry evolves into increased corporate ownership, there is a dramatic need for employees with management-level skillsets," he said.

The report also said the college chancellor’s office had problems gathering financial data about the bachelor’s programs that could shed light on the cost of the programs to the campuses and students.