Since SB 850 (Block, 2014) created the California Community Colleges Baccalaureate Degree Program Pilot, only the original fifteen pilot colleges have been allowed to offer a baccalaureate degree. The fact that “pilot” was in the title of the program also suggested that California community college baccalaureate degrees could be temporary. Fortunately, this status changed with the passing of AB 927 (Medina, 2021), which removed the word pilot from prior legislation and opened up opportunities for as many as thirty new baccalaureate degree programs annually.
California is not alone in its effort to expand baccalaureate degree opportunities in community colleges. According to the Community College Baccalaureate Association, an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges, as of 2021, 145 colleges in 25 states now offer community college baccalaureate degrees (CCBA, n.d.). California is adding to and will continue to add to the national total, with the California Community Colleges Board of Governors recently finalizing approval of the last of nine programs proposed in January 2022 (California Community Colleges Chancellors Office, 2023), increasing to 24 the total number of California community college baccalaureate degree programs. In addition, 29 colleges have applied in January 2023 for the opportunity to offer one of a maximum of fifteen more new programs for this application period.
The opportunity to expand baccalaureate degree programs within the California Community Colleges system has not been without challenges, most notably objections from California State University (CSU) campuses and programs. These objections have largely centered on the philosophical perspective that within the public higher education sector, baccalaureate degrees are the purview of the CSU and University of California systems, as was designated in the California Master Plan for Higher Education. The CSU mission includes offering “undergraduate and graduate instruction leading to bachelor’s and higher degrees in the liberal arts and sciences, the applied fields, and the professions, including the doctoral degree when authorized” (California State University, n.d.). However, proponents of community college baccalaureate degrees point to the inclusion of doctorate degrees in the CSU mission, a purview originally limited in the Master Plan to the UC alone.
Objections, including the recent Academic Senate for California State University’s resolution AS-3618-23/AA from March 16-17, 2023 (ASCSU, 2023), also center on the programmatic perspective that duplicative community college and CSU programs will adversely impact CSU enrollments, particularly at a time when CSU and community college campuses are struggling with low enrollments. However, one must keep in mind that because of the technical and hands-on aspects of most community college baccalaureate degrees, at least in California thus far, annual cohorts of graduates are small, as little as 15-35 students. Further, community college baccalaureate proponents recall that when introducing the 2022-23 January budget proposal, Governor Newsom expressed intent for “70% of working-aged Californians to hold a postsecondary degree or credential by 2023” (Spitalniak, 2022) and the Public Policy Institute of California projects that 40% of jobs will require a bachelor’s degree by 2030 (Johnson, et. al., 2019), goals that cannot be obtained without community college baccalaureate degrees.
Three themes are present in both SB 850 (Block, 2014) and AB 927 (Medina, 2021): workforce need, regional consideration, and serving place-bound students.  These elements are important reasons to justify the expansion of baccalaureate degrees in public higher education in California through the implementation of community college baccalaureate degrees.
Language within the intent section of SB 850 directly addressed community college baccalaureates being established in subject areas with unmet workforce needs and in program areas that do not “unnecessarily duplicate similar programs offered by nearby public four-year institutions” (Section 1.(e)). This language highlights the workforce focus of community college baccalaureate degrees while also acknowledging that some degree of duplication may exist and will need to be determined as necessary. SB 850 also acknowledged “nearby public four-year institutions” as the institutions to be considered for duplication. These themes were reinforced in the intent language for SB 927, requiring that a district “identify and document unmet workforce needs in the subject area of the baccalaureate degree to be offered and offer a baccalaureate degree at a campus in a subject area with unmet workforce needs in the local community or region of the district.”
Workforce development is part of the mission of the California community colleges. As community college baccalaureate degrees are being implemented nationally, they traditionally have a workforce, technical, or applied emphasis while including rigorous upper division major and general education coursework. The requirement that California community colleges applying to offer a baccalaureate degree include labor market data demonstrating not just employment potential but also graduate earning potential, with a regional living wage the minimum expectation, is indicative of the baccalaureate degree’s role in workforce development.
California community colleges have a strong history of serving local communities, as evidenced by “community” in the name of most colleges. This regional connection, in combination with the workforce emphasis of community college baccalaureate degrees, is an important aspect of the degrees. Education Code §§78042(i)(1-3) require that the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges “consult with and seek feedback from the Chancellor of the California State University, the President of the University of California, and the President of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities [AICCU],” who may “notify institutions with physical campuses in the service area of the community college district seeking the proposed baccalaureate degree.” The notification of the CSU Chancellor and UC and AICCU Presidents to their institutions with campuses within the community college service area is an indicator that community college baccalaureate degrees are intended to serve a local and regional need, and therefore review for duplication should be limited to programs offered at regional colleges and universities.
The importance of place as it relates to students and community college baccalaureate degrees seems to be dismissed by those outside the California Community Colleges system, yet it is a critical factor for those choosing to pursue a baccalaureate at a California community college. Many Californians do not live in close proximity to a UC or CSU campus, whether the campuses are in a nearby urban city or across a more rural county. When one takes into consideration family and work obligations, educational opportunities need to be close to home for most students, especially given that nationally the average age of community college baccalaureate students is 30 years old (CCBA, n.d.). For most, the role of student is in addition to the role of parent, caregiver, or employee. Online education may be an option for some, but online education may not be an option in technical fields, and success gaps still persist for students of color taking online courses (Hillman & Weichman, 2016). An August 2022 UC Davis Wheelhouse research brief highlighted the fact that 56% of California community college baccalaureate degree graduates reported they would not have pursued a bachelor’s degree had it not been offered at their community colleges (Hoang, et. al., 2022). For these students, the existence of community college baccalaureate degrees made the attainment of a baccalaureate degree possible.
Community college baccalaureate degrees are intended to address workforce needs of local and regional employers, and thus taking courses close to home and close to intended employers is key. Nevertheless, during the intersegmental review period for community college baccalaureate programs submitted to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office for consideration in January 2022, objections of duplication were lodged by two CSU programs against one program, Ecosystem Restoration and Applied Fire Management proposed by Feather River College, which in Quincy, California is located more than five hours away from the nearest of the two objecting CSU programs.
As was shared by leadership of the Community College Baccalaureate Association and attendees at their February 2023 conference, the tension in each state between emerging community college baccalaureate degree programs and public universities who have traditionally offered bachelor’s degree programs is common, and some of these tensions may ease only as community college baccalaureate programs graduate students who prove themselves in the workforce. In some states, continued collaboration between systems has been key in reaching a point where all public higher education systems acknowledge that by providing workforce-focused baccalaureate degree programs in regional locations where high employment potential and direct connection to local employers exists and increased earnings are possible, community college baccalaureate degrees can complement rather than compete with university degree options.
Academic Senate for California State University. (2023, Mar. 16-17) Resolution AS-3618-23. https://www.calstate.edu/csu-system/faculty-staff/academic-senate/resolutions/2022-2023/3618.pdf
Community College Baccalaureate Association. (n.d.). Infographic. https://www.accbd.org/wp-
California Community Colleges Chancellors Office. (2023, Feb. 21). New Bachelor’s Degree Programs Get Green Light from The California Community Colleges Board of Governors. https://www.cccco.edu/About-Us/News-and-Media/Press-Releases/2023-bdp-green-light
California State University. (n.d.). The Mission of the California State University. https://www.calstate.edu/csu-system/about-the-csu/Pages/mission.aspx
Hillman, N. & Weichman, T. (2016). Education Deserts: The Continued Significance of Place in the Twenty-First Century. American Council of Education Center for Policy Research and Strategy. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Education-Deserts-The-Continued-Significance-of-Place-in-the-Twenty-First-Century.pdf
Hoang, H., Vo, D., & Rios-Aguilar, C. (2022). Benefits and Opportunities: California’s Community College Baccalaureate Degree Programs. UC Davis Wheelhouse. https://education.ucdavis.edu/sites/main/files/file-attachments/wheelhouse_research_brief_vol_7_no_1_final.pdf?1659636036
Johnson, H., Bohn, S., & Cuellar Mejia, M. (2019). Higher Education in California: Meeting California’s Workforce Needs. Public Policy Institute of California. https://www.ppic.org/publication/higher-education-in-california-meeting-californias-workforce-needs/
Spitalniak, L. (2022, Jan. 11). California governor proposes almost $40b for higher ed, sets long term goal. Higher Ed Dive. https://www.highereddive.com/news/california-governor-proposes-almost-
1. Full text of both SB 850 and AB 927 is available at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=202120220AB927.