The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted at its July 24 meeting to recommend that the Legislature allow certain community colleges to offer four-year baccalaureate degree programs in nursing and in certain applied sciences and technology fields. The proposal stems from SB 414 by Ellis, enacted by the 83rd Legislature in 2013, which required the coordinating board to examine whether community colleges could address regional workforce shortages with expanded baccalaureate programs in certain fields. The coordinating board has identified nursing, computer and information technology support, fire management, production and operations management, and health information technology support as vital fields facing a shortage of workers in Texas.
Under the proposal supported by the board, a community college seeking to offer a baccalaureate degree program in one of these fields would have to meet the same standards as similar programs at four-year universities. This would include demonstrating short- and long-term workforce needs for the program, having faculty and library services that meet accreditation standards, identifying specific revenue sources for the programs, and creating a review process to assess quality and effectiveness.
Only community colleges with at least $2.5 billion in physical infrastructure would be allowed to apply to the coordinating board to offer baccalaureate degrees, and the new programs would have to be built on existing associate degree programs. The community college would have to show that it had explored partnership options with local universities and that a proposed program would not duplicate existing baccalaureate programs in the region.
Among the states that allow community colleges to issue baccalaureate degrees are Florida and Washington. Most community colleges in Florida offer at least one four-year baccalaureate program. A community college in Washington may offer a baccalaureate degree only if the same program is not already available at one of the state’s traditional four-year institutions.
Supporters of the expanded degree offerings say they would increase student access to programs designed to help fill workforce shortages. Community colleges are well positioned to do this because they tend to have more experience in technical training and offer smaller classes than traditional four-year institutions. While some institutions might need to expand their catalog of liberal arts courses in order to offer baccalaureate degrees, many already offer the foundational liberal arts courses needed for a variety of Texas baccalaureate programs.
Far from encouraging “mission creep,” supporters say, expanding current associate degree programs in nursing or applied sciences would be a prudent way to leverage the resources of institutions charged with preparing students for jobs in high-demand fields. Requiring that adequate funding be demonstrated as a prerequisite to offering these degrees would protect the financial stability and sustainability of the programs. While new community college programs might attract faculty from existing four-year programs, the increased number of workers in nursing and applied sciences could also bolster the ranks of qualified instructors available to Texas institutions of higher education.
Opponents of the expanded degree offerings say they would contribute to the mission creep of community colleges, many of which already are strapped for funding and have a difficult time meeting their current state mandates for education and job training. Community colleges play a vital role in delivering post-secondary education to the Texas workforce, but spending scarce state and local tax revenue on baccalaureate programs that might benefit only a small number of future workers would not be a wise investment, according to opponents.
The focus on offering baccalaureate degrees could lead to unproductive competition between community colleges and traditional four-year institutions in the state, opponents say, and this could drain faculty from existing four-year programs, especially nursing. In addition, community colleges may have difficulty providing the broad selection of quality liberal arts courses required to issue a baccalaureate degree.
by Tom Howe