Community colleges fight to give 4-year degrees

Community colleges fight to give 4-year degrees
Monday, June 15, 2009
Community colleges fight to give 4-year degrees
Two-year schools want to offer four-year degrees to increase access for students

Marisa Schultz / The Detroit News

After 19 years as a machinist, Gregg Schefferly suddenly found himself laid off and in search of a new career. He needed a higher education, but living outside rural Alpena and saddled with a mortgage that kept him from moving away, Schefferly, 44, had one option: an associate degree from Alpena Community College.

"If it wasn't for ACC (you) would have long ways to go," said Schefferly, who earned an associate degree in concrete technology in 2004. Located on the east coast of northern Michigan, Alpena is 152 miles away from the nearest public university campus. As a result, the percentage of residents with bachelor's degrees in the area is half the state's average.

But the geographical and financial barriers that blocked Schefferly from a bachelor's degree may soon be lessened as state lawmakers take up legislation this year to allow Michigan's 28 community colleges to confer bachelor's degrees in nursing, culinary arts and concrete technology in an effort to meet the state's work force needs and improve access to higher education.

The legislation is garnering strong resistance from the public universities' lobbying association, which accuses community colleges of "mission creep" by pushing into the bachelor's degree game.

"They are trying to be all things to all people, and they need to focus on their mission," said Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. "We will actively oppose it." The problem, advocates say, is Michigan's looming nursing shortage and sub-par level of higher education attainment. They say community colleges are well-equipped to offer bachelor's degrees to students who wouldn't otherwise attend a traditional university because of distance or cost.

"It's about access and affordability," said Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.

A broad bill to legalize bachelor's degrees at community colleges died last year, but this year's sponsor, Rep. John Walsh, R-Livonia, narrowed the scope to three fields so community colleges and universities would not compete for students.

"I didn't want to create animosity between our various institutions," Walsh said.

Unlike last year, this bill will have a hearing, according to the chair of the Education Committee, where the bill rests. For anything that could spark job growth in the state, it is "imperative that we take a look at it," said Rep. Tim Melton, D-Pontiac.

"I think if we can get everybody to the table ... it's a fairly good chance we could find compromise," he said.

Historically, community colleges offer work force training and provide associate degrees so students can transfer to universities. But the economic challenges and educational barriers facing states like Michigan have blurred the mission.

Seventeen states have allowed community colleges to confer bachelor's degrees. Some have since been reclassified as four-year institutions.

"Community colleges have always been there to meet the needs of the community," said Beth Hagan, executive director of the Fort Myers, Fla.-based Community College Baccalaureate Association, which promotes four-year degrees at community colleges. "And the needs of the community have changed."
Support for legislation

While all 28 community colleges support the legislation, Hansen said, not all are interested in offering four-year degrees.

Macomb Community College, Oakland Community College and Wayne County Community College District don't have immediate plans for bachelor's degrees if the bill passes.

"Ours is a wait-and-see attitude at this point," said George Cartsonis, spokesman for Oakland Community College. "There is an argument for this in rural areas, where the community college is the only education vehicle in the area, but here Oakland University is next door, Walsh College is down the street, Wayne State is down the expressway."

Henry Ford Community College, Alpena Community College and Schoolcraft College are eager to offer bachelor's degrees.

As top culinary schools in the nation expand to four-year programs, Schoolcraft could remain competitive with the legislation, said Shawn Loving, culinary arts department chair.

The third and fourth years could focus more on food science, nutrition, management and technology.

A bachelor's degree may not necessarily make someone a better chef -- that comes from practice and work -- but the extra schooling could better prepare students for running a business, said Susan Baier, program coordinator at Oakland Community College's Culinary Studies Institute.

In the meantime, community colleges have increased access to bachelor's degrees by beefing up agreements with universities to make transferring credits seamless.

Some have set up university centers that allow students to earn a degree from, say, Ferris State University, without having to go to Big Rapids.

Opponents point to these agreements when calling the legislation unnecessary. "We are everywhere," Boulus said of the 15 public universities.

But many students who live near a university wish they could stay at their community college for a bachelor's degree.

"Why would people choose to pay triple the price when they can go someplace and pay one-third less," said Margaret Anderson, 25, a nursing student at Henry Ford who will likely transfer to Wayne State. "With the economy now, I think there's more people than ever that would do it."
Hoping for a new law

Schefferly is now an instructor at Alpena Community College and hopes the state law will change.

"Having that opportunity would really increase the number of people going for a degree," Schefferly said.

Schefferly is working toward a bachelor's degree in business administration from Northwood University, which joined Alpena Community College's university center in 2003.

A Ferris State University program will be added in the fall.

But the university center doesn't mitigate the need for community college baccalaureate degrees, said ACC President Olin Joynton.

Dramatically increasing the educational attainment of local residents is "a big goal and we've got to work on it in a lot of different ways," Joynton said. "Community colleges, like ACC, are one of the tools in the toolbox that should be used."

Then he paused. "Well, it's not yet in the toolbox, but I want it to be."

mschultz@detnews.com (313) 222-2310

Posted on Monday, June 15, 2009 (Archive on Monday, June 22, 2009)
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