Community colleges to potentially offer bachelor’s degrees in Illinois

By Alex Swanson

Illinois community colleges may be able to offer bachelor’s degrees in Illinois in the future. Dr. Robert Breuder, president of the College of DuPage, is leading an effort to change state legislation to allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in applied science and applied technology fields.

He began the effort several years ago while president of Harper College and since then, more than 20 states have authorized community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in select fields. 

Joe Moore, spokesman for the College of DuPage, said this might be an opportune time to consider the issue again.

“We think the time may be right to take another look at this, and do it,” Moore said. “President Breuder is, right now, leading a group of presidents from the Illinois Community College President’s Council for exploring how they might pursue this issue statewide.”

Moore also said that the cost of a community college bachelor’s degree may be as little as a third or half of what a student would pay for a bachelor’s degree from a traditional four-year university.

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Proponents of the idea argue that community colleges should be able to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied technology and applied science areas when a traditional four-year university in that district does not or cannot offer that program.

Breuder specified that the need for baccalaureate degrees varies between districts.

“What we’re trying to avoid is unnecessary duplication, unnecessary replication, but rather integration to compliment, you know, create a synergy among all of our education,” Breuder said.

A study committee, chaired by Breuder, is investigating whether there is a demand for bachelor’s degrees in applied science and technology that cannot be met by four-year universities.

For the proposal to move forward, the study committee must present their findings to the President’s Council in late summer or early fall. Then, that council will make the decision whether to pursue legislative change that would allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees.

Additionally, the proposal must have support from the Illinois Community College Board to ultimately be approved.

Proponents would then seek legislative changes to allow community colleges in Illinois to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied sciences or technologies, where there is an unmet need in the district.

Breuder believes the program would offer potential financial benefits to the state, as well as community college students.

“What we seek to do is to be able to bulk business and industry by identifying, attracting and retaining the best workforce in the state,” Breuder said.

However, there are those who have questions as to whether this conversation is taking place too early.

Dr. James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, voiced his concern that this discussion is evolving without evidence of an unmet need for bachelor’s degrees.

“As far as I know, we don’t have that data on a systematic level in Illinois,” Applegate said. “That’s why I think this is a premature conversation.”

Applegate stressed that he is most concerned with the welfare of the residents of Illinois and how to provide them with the best education.

“As far as I can tell, right now, this is all about who gets to do what in our institutions,” he said. “I really need to hear more about the needs of our people.”

Additionally, one of the concerns with this proposition is that community colleges will divert students away from traditional four-year universities.

However, Moore doesn’t think community colleges and universities would necessarily recruit the same type of students.

“We believe that we would be able to, perhaps, serve a segment of the student population that could not afford to attend a traditional four-year institution,” Moore said.

Applegate stated that community colleges have a separate role to play in educating Illinois residents by awarding associate’s degrees that are in line with workforce needs in Illinois.

“They do the bulk of the developmental, remedial work for students out of high school who come underprepared, to get them ready so that they can go on and get a college credential,” Applegate said. “That’s a massive responsibility.”

Wesley Day, sophomore in LAS, attended both Parkland College and Danville Area Community College before transferring to the University. He voiced his concern over the idea that community colleges could eventually offer bachelor’s degrees.

“In my experiences, community colleges, while they may be able to give students bachelor’s degrees, they do not fully prepare students for the real-world workforce experiences,” Day said. “I believe that community colleges should just stick to their associate’s degree programs.”

However, some students, like Colin Graves, a transfer student from Parkland College and senior in FAA, feel the proposal could be beneficial to community college students.

“I think it would help students who go through community colleges … who didn’t have super good grades … and didn’t get into a bigger college because of that or because of financial reasons,” Graves said.

Under the current system, he added, transferring from community colleges to universities also helps those students to succeed.

Applegate commented on the need to develop the most efficient method to educate Illinois residents.

“The majority of people in Illinois don’t have a college degree,” he said. “So, if we think about, not just high school students, but all the adults that are out there now who need to come back to college, there’s plenty of work to go around. In fact, there’s so much work we need to do that we’ve got to figure out the most efficient and effective ways to do it, or we can’t possibly afford to do it.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected].