The California State Senate will convene today to hear SB 850, a bill introduced by Senator Marty Block that aims to help create one million new jobs by 2025 by offering select community colleges the chance to grant baccalaureate degrees.

The baccalaureate degree pilot program described in SB 850 would offer one type of four-year degree specific to the needs of the workforce in each of 20 selected community college districts. It would require the board of governors of the California Community College system to consult with the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems to ensure that there is no duplication of degrees. The program will expire in eight years.

Scott Lay, Chief Executive Officer of the Community College League of California, said he fully supports the bill and thinks the program will be a way to improve higher education in California particularly after its last 15 years’ worth of economic slumps.

“It’s not replacing the function of the bachelor’s level education provided at the CSU, UC or the private schools but rather is changing what is provided at the community college level to recognize a changing workforce expectation,” Lay said.

According to Lay, 10 years ago the Community College League of California did not want to see baccalaureate degrees at community colleges. Now, he said the board is unanimously for it.

21 states, including states such as Florida and Washington, currently offer baccalaureate degrees at community colleges. According to Lay, California has the largest community college system and can potentially examine and adopt some of the beneficial qualities of the successfully implemented programs. Lay said it is important for the state’s community college system to do so since California’s economy has a large demand for bachelor’s degrees, a demand which exceeds the number of people actually predicted to fill them.

According to Maria Lopez, Block’s Communications Director, the senator’s goal for the bill was to close the skill gap in the California economy by achieving one million more bachelor’s level degrees.

“A lot of times, students have difficulty transferring or difficulty completing their degrees,” Lopez said. “It’s much easier if they start, for example, a program at a community college and then are able to stay there, especially in areas that are rural or a long distance from a UC or CSU campus.”

Anacristina Dominguez, a third-year psychology major who transferred from a two-year community college in Valencia, said her college was looking into starting a bachelor’s degree program and a large number of students appeared interested.

“A lot of people that go to my community college plan on staying there for a long time,” Dominguez said. “If they offered something that allowed them to stay there while getting their degree, maybe it will motivate them more.”

If the bill passes and is implemented, Lay said, enrollment at UCs and CSUs should not be affected.

“We’re increasing the capacity of higher education in California rather than shifting one institution toward another,” Lay said.

Harendre Ipalawatte, a fourth-year biopsychology major who transferred from Moorpark College, said he does not believe employers will find baccalaureate degrees from two-year institutions as competitive as degrees from four-year universities.

“A four-year bachelor degree has value, especially in the job market or a professional field, but coming from a community college with a four-year degree, I wouldn’t put any value on that,” Ipalawatte said.

According to Lay, an ongoing movement within the healthcare profession to increase the quality of healthcare has fostered favoritism for nurses with baccalaureate degrees over those with traditional, two-year registered nurse degrees. As a result, he said the number of nursing jobs has increased in response to the movement, but the growth coincided with the recession and left many registered nurses unemployed.

While earlier Lay said the demand for bachelor’s degrees are high in California, he also said that allowing community colleges to grant baccalaureate degrees may raise concerns that there will be too many individuals with four-year degrees and not enough jobs to fill them.

“There will be concerns and discussions in each of these areas as to whether or not community colleges would be contributing to an oversupply in the workforce,” Lay said. “The last thing we want to do is be part of educating too many bachelor’s degree nurses and leading up to them not having jobs.”

According to Lopez, state nurses were at first opposed to the bill in fear of the unnecessary duplication of nursing degrees. Lopez said they later withdrew their opposition when an amendment clarified that the program would offer very specific, job-targeted degrees unavailable at four-year universities.

As for today’s hearing, Lay said he thinks the bill will “pretty much fly through the legislature.”

Meanwhile, Lopez said she is hopeful that the bill will pass and that Block is currently “committed to working with all parties” interested in the bill.

“I suspect that we have a good chance of getting it to the governor,” Lopez said.


A version of this story appeared on page 3 of Thursday, April 24, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.