Fifteen California community colleges received preliminary approval Tuesday to start offering career-oriented bachelor's degrees, a step that represents a first for the nation's largest college system and that supporters said is needed to ensure residents are prepared for jobs that in the past may have required only two years of training.
The colleges recommended by system Chancellor Brice Harris and endorsed by the system's board of governors were selected from a pool of 34 applicants. They are located throughout the state, from Crafton Hills College near San Bernardino and Mesa College in San Diego to Feather River College in Quincy and Shasta College in Redding.
Until now, the state's 112 community colleges have offered only two-year associate degrees. But a bill authored by Democratic state Sen. Marty Block and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year established a seven-year pilot program that allows up to 15 college districts to offer a single four-year degree each in subjects not offered by the University of California or California State University systems.
Emergency services, dental hygiene, automotive technology, respiratory care and mortuary science are some of the degrees the participating colleges plan to offer.
"This is about jobs. It's about preparing students for our workforce, the requirements of which have changed," San Diego Community College District Chancellor Constance M. Carroll told the board. "Students seeking jobs will now have a competitive opportunity which did they did not have before."
The schools were picked on the basis of location, their capacity to create a high-quality program in a short time and local labor market demand, Harris said.
The programs need to be running by the 2017-18 school year, although several schools said Tuesday they expect to be ready before then.
Skyline College President Regina Stanback Stroud, whose San Mateo County school was cleared to expand its existing two-year respiratory therapy program into a four-year course of study, said she hopes to have it operating in the fall of 2016. Local employers have been telling college officials for some time that they require new hires to hold four-year degrees, Stroud said.
"If you look at that and think about what employers say they need and where the profession is evolving toward high-level skills, we are anticipating a great demand," she said.
Twenty other states have community colleges that offer bachelor's degrees, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association.
Block had to try three times before the Legislature agreed to add California to that list. He originally proposed a bill without a cap on the number of participating colleges but said the limited pilot program would be "a game-changer" that "will change not just the face of higher education in California, but our workforce."
Under the legislation, students earning their baccalaureates would pay an additional $84 per unit for upper-division courses on top of the regular per-unit fee of $46 per unit, for a total of $132. The cost, however, would still be far less than the $220 and $270 per credit now charged by Cal State and UC campuses, board member Colin van Loon said.
California's move comes as its higher education institutions are recovering from several years of deep budget cuts that limited enrollment and course offerings, making it harder for students to complete their studies.
The selected programs are expected to be subject to a final vote in March after leaders from Cal State and UC officials have been allowed to offer their input.