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For Community Colleges, a Chance to Grant More Four-Year Degrees

Ahead of the 2015 legislative session, momentum seems to be building for more chances to earn four-year degrees at community colleges in Texas.

Freshman Samantha Salas (center) hangs out with friends before going to class on the first day of school on Aug. 25, 2014, at South Texas College's Pecan Campus in McAllen.

Since 2003, when South Texas College, Midland College and Brazosport College received permission to offer bachelor’s degrees, several other community colleges have tried to acquire the same authority.

Ahead of the 2015 legislative session, momentum seems to be building for other two-year institutions to get a chance to offer four-year degrees.

Opening the door for new bachelor’s degrees in nursing and applied sciences at community colleges is listed as a priority recommendation for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

In early August, Raymund Paredes, the state’s higher education commissioner, who had expressed skepticism about such programs in the past, notified legislators that he planned to recommend that such offerings be allowed at more institutions.

“I made my recommendation on the basis of trying to create another pathway for poor, nontraditional students in Texas to achieve a baccalaureate degree,” he said.

His recommendation comes on the heels of a study, mandated by a bill that passed during the 2013 legislative session, that found that allowing more community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees could make it easier to meet work force needs and would increase access to education for would-be students.

The study, by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, also cited concerns in the higher education community about mission creep at two-year schools and the potential for creating unproductive competition between universities and colleges.

The report offered three options: make no changes to the current landscape, allow for unrestricted expansion of four-year degrees at community colleges or allow restricted growth. The choices, according to the study, “necessarily involve difficult trade-offs.”

Paredes, who ultimately chose to recommend the third option, noted that the controls would be tight.

Interested community colleges will have to demonstrate a work force need for their desired degree program, as well as show that the program was not duplicating any others in the region and that the possibility of collaborating with local universities had been exhausted, among other criteria.

Even with the support of the commissioner, the proposal must still get through the legislative process.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, filed a bill in the 2013 session that would have allowed for the expansion of bachelor’s degree programs in nursing at community colleges. After a significant watering down, it became the bill that mandated the RAND Corporation study.

“I ran into a buzz saw, a firestorm that was tougher than just about anything I’ve run into,” he said. “I was having challenges even getting a hearing on the bill. To be honest, maybe it was an idea whose time had not come.”

More than 20 states now allow at least some community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. In California, a bill that would allow them was sent to the governor recently for his signature. “I think the evidence suggests, not only within Texas but around the country, that there is a niche for these kinds of programs,” Paredes said.

Brenda Hellyer, the chancellor of San Jacinto College, which currently cannot offer four-year degrees, said a sudden proliferation of new programs was unlikely.

“It’s not like this is for all community colleges,” she said. “It really is driven by specific needs of a community.”

Shirley Reed, the president of South Texas College, said that offering bachelor’s degrees for nearly the last decade had not caused her institution to stray from its mission.

Noting that baccalaureate students only represent 2.3 percent of enrollment at the three community colleges in Texas that offer the degrees, she said, “The tail is not wagging the dog.”

Disclosure: Raymund Paredes is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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