MIAMI — When LaKisha Coleman received her associate’s degree at Miami Dade Community College six years ago, her best bet for a bachelor’s degree seemed to be at the more expensive Florida International University.
Maggie Steber for The New York Times
Joel Flores and about 40 other students at Miami Dade worked on a mock crime scene as part of a class exercise. Some universities oppose the expansion of community college programs.
Maggie Steber for The New York Times
Sharon Plotkin, a crime scene technician, with students from Miami Dade College, one of 14 community colleges in Florida authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees.
But nowadays, Miami Dade College — the “Community” has been dropped — offers bachelor’s degrees in teaching and nursing and public safety management, and will soon add engineering technology, film production and others. Ms. Coleman returned to Miami Dade two years ago and is about to graduate with a degree in public safety management.
Ms. Coleman now recommends the college to family members. “It’s much cheaper, the teachers are good, you can do it in the evening while you work, and everyone’s very helpful,” she said.
As Ms. Coleman discovered, the line between community colleges and four-year universities is blurring.
Florida leads the way, with 14 community colleges authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees, and 12 already doing so, in fields as varied as fire safety management and veterinary technology. But nationwide, 17 states, including Nevada, Texas and Washington, have allowed community colleges to award associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and in some, the community colleges have become four-year institutions. Others states are considering community college baccalaureates.
In most cases, the expanding community colleges argue that they are fulfilling a need, providing four-year degrees to working people who often lack the money or the time to travel to a university. But some of those universities are fighting back, saying the community colleges are involved in “mission creep” that may distract them from their traditional mission and lead to watered-down bachelor’s degrees.
“It’s cooking in several states, in many work-force-related fields, but there’s a lot of debate and politics, and differing views on whether they’re still community colleges if they give baccalaureates,” said Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, a nonprofit group that promotes the trend.
In Michigan, community colleges are seeking to offer baccalaureates in culinary arts, cement technology and nursing. Their efforts have stalled, said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.
“We need legislation to do it, and the legislation’s been introduced, but that’s as far as it’s gotten,” Mr. Hansen said. “The four-year universities in the state are very much opposed to the idea.”
Mike Boulus, the executive director of the group that represents the four-year universities, called the plan to expand community colleges “a solution in search of a problem.”
“It’s clearly unnecessary,” Mr. Boulus said. “Community colleges should stick with the important work they do extremely well, offering two-year degrees and preparing students for transfer to four-year schools.”
Some critics worry that community college baccalaureates will drive up costs, take resources from needy students and lead to low-quality degrees.
At Miami Dade College, more than 1,000 students are enrolled in baccalaureate programs. Their average age is 33; three-quarters are women, and slightly more than half are Hispanic.
Miami Dade’s president, Eduardo J. Padrón, said the baccalaureate programs were part of his institution’s mission of serving the community.
“We supply the area’s nurses and the teachers, and we respond quickly to new work force needs in our community, training people for real jobs,” Dr. Padrón said. “You won’t see us starting a B.A. in sociology. We’re offering degrees in things the universities don’t want to do.”
He emphasized that the programs required the same kinds of general education courses as four-year universities.
Miami Dade’s baccalaureate courses feel unlike a typical college class. In a recent Monday evening class, Ms. Coleman and others were quick to share experiences from outside the class. The evening’s topic was correctional officers — their pay, job requirements, working conditions and subculture. One student knows a guard who was fired for trafficking in cellphones; another tells of how the guards treated visitors when her son was in jail.
Almost all had earned their associate’s degree, a prerequisite for the baccalaureate programs, at Miami Dade and had taken some classes at Florida International, but had found them expensive and unsatisfying.
Ms. Coleman, the third of 10 children, took 10 years after high school graduation to earn her associates’ degree because she was working and had to take semesters off to care for her younger siblings and ailing mother.
Dr. Padrón said community colleges existed to serve students like Ms. Coleman.
“We have an open-door policy, and we serve 62 percent of Miami-Dade district graduates who go to college,” said Dr. Padrón, referring to the local public school system. “Eighty percent of our students work, and 58 percent of them come from low-income families.
“Ours is a mission of rescue. The universities that handpick their students based on SATs and grades get three times the funding we do. We are the underfunded overachiever.”
Dr. Padrón said he had no plans for Miami Dade to become Miami Dade State College, as it is entitled to be.
Some community colleges that offered baccalaureates have, however, morphed into four-year institutions, repeating a pattern in American higher education.
“From the 1840s to the 1940s we had the sequence where normal schools, founded to train teachers, became teachers’ colleges, then abandoned that role to become colleges, and then the ball would keep rolling and they would become universities,” said Christopher J. Lucas, an education professor at the University of Arkansas. “This has some of that feel. I get a little uneasy when I see community colleges playing at being four-year universities. When you try to be all things to all people, you end up not being very good for any of them.”
Community-college baccalaureates challenge the educational hierarchy’s boundaries between the research mission of universities, the teaching mission of colleges and open admissions for community colleges.
“Many people in leadership believe that’s the right division of labor,” said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “So like any fundamental change, the blurring of the lines is uncomfortable.”
Further complicating matters, some four-year universities offer not only nursing and teaching degrees but also applied baccalaureates — Bachelor of Applied Science or Bachelor of Applied Technology — in the fields into which community colleges are expanding. “The old categories that divided the world up between big-picture and applied-skills are out of date and dysfunctional,” Dr. Schneider said. “So colleges and universities of all kinds — two-year, four-year, public and private — are feeling their way toward a synthesis.”