Community Colleges: Four-Year Degrees in Illinois and Beyond

Timing is everything and it is now time to bring to the forefront again the issue of community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees. Twenty-two states are on board and have authorized community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in specified technical degree areas such as manufacturing, nursing and automotive technology, with California (the largest community college system in the U.S.) and Maryland on the cusp as well.

Recently, College of DuPage, located in the western suburbs of Chicago, implemented our new brand, "The New School of Thought," which incorporated an extensive 18 months of research. We heard from prospective students and other audiences during this research that the only drawback of College of DuPage is that we are a two-year school. We're trying to combat this perception through our innovative programming, such as 3+1 and 2+2 baccalaureate opportunities with outside universities, but the fact remains that we cannot provide the whole four years needed by many students for success in specific applied sciences/applied technical fields without forcing them to transfer to another school for completion. We lose these students, but often so does higher education in the process. It's a well-known fact in education that students who start at one school and stay there for all four years have higher completion rates than students who leave their "native" institution to finish their degree elsewhere.

On the other hand, community colleges are doing a good job working under the state laws that currently reign in our four-year capabilities. Research from the American Institutes of Research shows a large portion of students may actually be better off starting at a two-year institution. First-generation students in particular, the reporter writes, may benefit from starting at a two-year school. Considering the strong foundation we help our students lay before moving on to earn their degrees, why shouldn't we go even further to help them pursue an even higher degree on our campuses?

The idea behind offering baccalaureate degrees at two-year schools means moving into areas where there is a documented, unmet community need that clearly exists -- where there is no public/private provider in a specific field. We are supported and our charter was created by the community for the community. If taxpayers have capitalized us, why then should we be impeded from offering the upper two years? We are here to offer opportunities for our students. If schools such as College of DuPage have the faculty, resources, accreditation, licensure, buildings, desire and drive, there is no reason why we should stay out of this arena -- especially at a time when more than ever before, parents and students are looking for a strong return on their investment in higher education.

There will, of course, be some push back by some private and public institutions fearful of the competition and our success. The push back, however, will be unwarranted as we do not plan to offer programs already available at other institutions.

Before any of this can become a reality, however, we need a change in legislation and support for it from the Illinois Community College Trustees Association, then the Illinois Community College Board and Illinois Board of Higher Education. The final step is approval by the state legislature. The argument that community colleges offering bachelor's degrees has anything to do with "mission creep" is Neanderthal in nature. Community colleges have been changing and evolving -- doing what we do best -- keeping up with the needs of our students since the first charter was established more than 100 years ago at Joliet Junior College here in Illinois. Our mission of providing high-quality, affordable education and accessibility is set in stone. This transformation will not compromise our contract with the public and, in fact, broadens it, making two-year schools an even stronger component of higher education by offering more opportunities for success.

This is a no brainer. Let's keep our students here for four years if it means better, higher-level careers for them in specific applied sciences/applied technical fields not offered by other schools. President Obama has issued the challenge to produce 8 million post-secondary graduates by 2020. Allowing community colleges to open their doors and offer four-year degrees will enhance this country's chances of achieving this goal, moving the U.S. higher than its current ranking of 14th among the world's nations in the proportion of people between the ages of 25 and 34 who have earned college degrees.

The demand for bachelor's degrees at the community college level is there. Countless students have said to me, "Why are you making me leave? Why don't you offer the rest of my degree?" Students who are here want to stay for the full ride, and unfortunately, that's not possible now because we can't offer the credentials they're seeking.

Two-year schools offering bachelor's degrees is a national movement that will continue to gain momentum. In Illinois, this change in our state statute would be a huge benefit for our students and community members. We're not talking about duplication or replication -- we're talking about meeting the needs of students and businesses in our community that are not being met. In the 10 years since Florida first implemented this groundbreaking legislation, nearly half the states in this country (22) have jumped on board and two others are on the precipice. It is time NOW for Illinois to make this number a solid 50 percent and become the 25th school to put into place what is destined to become policy for all two-year schools in the nation.