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California community colleges to advance, expand bachelor’s degree programs

(Katelyn Dang/Illustrations Director)

By Saumya Gupta

Oct. 29, 2021 4:51 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 31 at 11:57 p.m.

A new state law creating bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges will reduce barriers and racial equity gaps, said a UCLA professor and representatives from the San Diego Community College District.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 927 into law Oct. 6. The new law makes permanent a pilot program offering bachelor’s degree programs at 15 community colleges – including San Diego Mesa College, Rio Hondo College and Cyprus College. The law also allows other community colleges the opportunity to create bachelor’s degree programs.

In order for a bachelor’s degree program to be established at a community college, the California State University chancellor, the University of California president and the president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities must assess the proposed program. The proposed bachelor’s degree program also cannot already be offered by the CSU or UC.

Previously, the 15 colleges were only allowed one bachelor’s degree program each and the piloted programs were set to accept their last cohort of students in the beginning of the 2022-2023 academic year, according to the legislation text.

Natalia Trinh, the student trustee for the SDCCD, said the new law opens up more opportunities for students to be able to receive a bachelor’s degree and that it would close racial, ethnic, background and financial equity gaps.

From a financial standpoint, pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a community college can help a person eliminate added costs for transportation and housing, she added.

According to the SDCCD, students in the program pay less than $11,000 in tuition and fees for their four-year degree. In comparison, UCLA in-state students pay about $13,000 in tuition and fees per year, and out-of-state students pay about $42,000 in tuition and fees per year for their bachelor’s degree, according to UCLA Undergraduate Admission.

Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, an education professor, said community colleges tend to have the highest number of students of color, low-income students and first-generation students, and that transferring to a four-year institution can be a barrier for them.

In the Los Angeles Community College District, 56% of students were first generation, 53% were low-income and more than 70% were students of color, according to 2019 data from the district. In the SDCCD, 26% of students were first generation, more than 40% were low-income, and more than 65% were students of color, according to 2021-2022 data from the district.

“By having and offering these degrees that lead to some well-paying jobs and removing some of those barriers, I think it’s a pretty clear message to the state of California, to the post-secondary system, that this can be done,” Rios-Aguilar added. “That it’s possible to remove those barriers for the students and that they can get a bachelor’s degree, which is key to social and economic mobility.”

She added that she thinks highly of the bachelor’s degree program but that they need to be given support from the state to be a successful program. The program needs to increase in size, offer additional financial aid and prioritize support for students of color, first-generation students and low-income students, Rios-Aguilar said.

“We need some serious thinking on how we’re going to fund the students and the institutions at the levels they need,” she said. “There is no clarity yet, I feel, on how we can achieve this parity between the reimbursement that community colleges are getting compared to the CSUs and the UCs.”

Ryan King, a UC Office of the President spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that the University is currently evaluating the impacts of the law.

“Although the University did not take a position on AB 927, we appreciate the Legislature’s interest in enhancing educational outcomes for students across California,” King added.

Rios-Aguilar added that the legislation was created in such a way that instead of impacting enrollment at CSU and UC campuses, community colleges are serving students who the UC and CSU are not.

“The most important thing is to think collectively about collaboration, about how to support these programs with research infrastructure (and) with more opportunities,” Rios-Aguilar said. “Not to think about who is stealing students from who. It’s more about how are we going to close racial equity gaps in this state and (support and embrace) these programs.”

With the law’s passage, the district’s three colleges – San Diego City College, San Diego Mesa College and San Diego Miramar College – are evaluating which academic programs they can offer as four-year programs, said SDCCD spokesperson Jack Beresford in an emailed statement.

“It’s rewarding to have the support of California’s political leadership since the district has been working for years to make this a reality,” Beresford added.

Trinh said the bachelor’s degree program shows that anything is possible at a community college.

“It’s just really exciting to see,” Trinh said. “The world is changing, and if we can do something like that, imagine what other changes we can do at community colleges.”

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Saumya Gupta | News senior staff
Gupta was the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the national news and higher education beat. She was previously a contributor for the beat. She is also a fourth-year psychology student.
Gupta was the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the national news and higher education beat. She was previously a contributor for the beat. She is also a fourth-year psychology student.
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