Why California's community colleges will soon offer 4-year degrees

By Masaki Sugimoto

MODESTO, Calif. — When Emily Littleton was growing up, she was often awoken at night by the sound of her younger sister wheezing and struggling for breath from an asthma attack. Littleton would grab the nebulizer, hook it up for her sister and get her dad.

The experience remained deeply rooted in Littleton’s memory, resurfacing several years after she graduated from high school as a calling for a career.

The first time she attended community college, Littleton said she vacillated from major to major, finally earning a two-year degree in natural sciences.

Then, while working at an assisted living facility, she heard about the respiratory therapy program at Modesto Junior College in California’s Central Valley, and her past echoed, directing her choice of a career.

In December, Littleton and her 23 classmates will graduate with their associate’s degrees.

But those degrees are already on the verge of becoming obsolete, as respiratory therapy and other skilled fields increasingly require a higher level of education in order to meet rapidly expanding demands for greater technical know-how and knowledge.

An associate’s degree just won’t cut it anymore.

“I’ve been watching with great concern the fact that many employers who previously required associate degree-level training now require bachelor’s degree-level training,” said Constance Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District.

Carroll helped launch a campaign to make it easier for students to earn bachelor’s degrees in these key areas.

Last year, after two failed efforts, the state Legislature gave the go-ahead for some community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees on a limited basis.

California, normally a bellwether in public higher education, was behind the curve this time: 21 states, from West Virginia and Vermont to Florida and Texas, gave community colleges this opportunity years ago.

California’s law created pilot programs at 15 of the state’s 113 community colleges in specific high-needs technical fields.

From a pool of 34 applicants, the statewide community college Board of Governors selected two schools to offer respiratory therapy baccalaureates, two to offer dental hygiene degrees, and two others to offer degrees in health information management.

The board also gave approval to bachelor’s degree programs in automotive technology, airframe manufacturing, equine industry, industrial automation, occupational studies, interaction design, biotechnology and mortuary science. The new bachelor’s degrees are only for programs not already offered at the California State University or the University of California. Beginning in 2017, Littleton and her classmates will have the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy at a fraction of the cost of traditional four-year colleges and universities, without leaving Modesto Junior College. They are also likely to end up with a significantly higher salary.

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Concern over the state’s economic outlook helped push the law through.

California will need about 1 million more people with bachelor’s degrees by 2025, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a Sacramento-based nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. A number of educators and policymakers, including California Gov. Jerry Brown, doubted the state’s ability to meet that goal without including community colleges, which serve a little over 2 million students a year — more than triple the combined enrollment of California State University and the University of California. Community colleges bring these opportunities to nontraditional students nationwide. With an average student age of 28, more than 60 percent of full-time community college students work, a third are the first in their family to attend college, and nearly as many are raising children of their own.

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To be considered for the pilot program, colleges already had to offer an associate’s degree in a high-need field and provide evidence that local employers want and need more people with bachelor’s degrees in those professions, a fact that would almost guarantee graduates a job right out of school. Another key provision, the lack of which would have been a deal breaker for California State University and the University of California, prohibits the new community college programs from duplicating those already available in the four-year state university systems. Modesto Junior College’s popular respiratory therapy program met all those qualifications. The two-year associate’s degree program regularly receives about four applicants for each of its 24 spots, and 98 percent of the students graduate on time, according to Bonnie Hunt, director of the respiratory therapy program. Hunt said she anticipates admission to the baccalaureate program will be even more competitive. “The first day that it was announced on the news, we had so many calls that we had to develop a link on the website so frequently asked questions could be answered,” Hunt said.JT