Community colleges strive to expand their access

But to what degree?
The Colorado Statesman

Colorado’s community colleges are seeking permission from the General Assembly to offer four-year bachelor’s degrees, but it’s pitting Democrats in the state Senate against each other, and drawing the kind of opposition from the state’s public universities that one university president likened to a “food fight.”

Senate Bill 13-165 as introduced would require the community colleges to get permission from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE) for up to 10 technical, career and/or workforce development degrees, mostly for the bachelor of applied science. Under the bill, the CCHE would have to determine that the proposed degree is sufficiently distinguishable from another program offered by a four-year public college or university, or whether it has been previously offered in conjunction with a four-year college or university.

The Senate Education Committee approved the bill on an 8-1 vote last week, with the sole “no” vote cast by Sen. Rollie Health, D-Boulder, whose district includes CU-Boulder. And CU officials were on hand during that hearing to protest that the bill was not necessary.

The education committee amended SB 165 to reduce the number of programs from 10 to seven, and to make sure that the community college programs did not include the bachelor of arts degree, other than a bachelor of fine arts degree.

The full Senate debated SB 165 on Tuesday, and passed it on a 29-5 vote Wednesday. Four of the five “no” votes were from Democrats, including Heath and Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, a former CU Regent.

During Tuesday’s debate, Heath attempted to gut the bill, to require that the issue be studied to find out where the educational opportunities are lacking, and which institution would be best suited to provide those opportunities. He also tried, but failed, to get the education committee to adopt the same amendment. “We need an overall assessment, not just a school assessment. There’s no magic about seven or 10,” Heath said. The amendment drew strong opposition from bill sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, and from Republican members on the education committee during the second reading debate, and the amendment failed.

Another study is not necessary, said Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins. The community colleges have more than 5,000 businessmen and women who advise them about what they need to fill the jobs, Marble told the Senate.

Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, said the amendment would gut the bill, and that there is enough permissiveness in SB 165 for the CCHE to approve or disapprove programs. He also raised the possibility that all the institutions might not want a needs assessment, done by the CCHE. It gives the CCHE the authority to tell the colleges and universities what to do, Scheffel said.

“We’re putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” added Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, also on the education committee, supported Heath’s amendment but said he also supported the “general direction” of the bill.

SB 165 got full support from Sens. Michael Johnston, D-Denver and Jesse Ulibarri, D-Commerce City.

“This is a bill for students, not systems,” Todd said. She recalled the history of public colleges and universities in the past nine years, addressing “mission creep,” where institutions took on additional academic responsibilities that required changes to their statutory missions. All of those changes required legislation that passed nearly unanimously in the Senate, Todd noted. That included changing institution names from “college” to “university,” for Adams State, Metro State, Western State, and Mesa State; allowing Fort Lewis College and Mesa to become more selective in their admissions; and letting Colorado Mountain College and CSU-Pueblo offer more advanced degrees. She also noted that in 21 other states two-year colleges offer bachelor’s degrees. “We are not in a static system,” she said.

The degree that has become the poster child for SB 165 is dental hygiene. The University of Colorado stopped offering the bachelor’s degree in 2009, and it’s cited as a one that could be offered by the community colleges. Several already offer two-year degrees in dental hygiene.

During the March 14 education committee hearing, leaders of state’s public college systems sparred over the bill.

Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS) noted that her institution has “excess capacity,” meaning it has the space to accommodate more students, a point also made by Chancellor Mike Martin of the Colorado State University system. Shockley-Zalabak noted that students who transfer to UCCS from area community colleges are of high quality and graduate at the same rates as four-year students. She also explained that she has worked with the business community in southern Colorado to address workforce needs, and that she favors the comprehensive needs assessment Heath proposed.

Martin explained that he has experience as administrator of a community college system and as an administrator of a four-year system. “The best way to achieve what this bill intends is to first search for ways for partnerships between two- and four-year systems that can offer the best of both worlds,” he told the committee. Martin said he worked on a similar partnership in Florida, where the two- and four-year institutions formed partnerships despite being hundreds of miles apart.

But at least one university supports SB 165: Metropolitan State University of Denver. President Stephen Jordan testified that granting community colleges the authority to offer bachelor of applied science degrees serves an important workforce need, although he later characterized the tussle between the institutions over the bill as a “food fight.”

The kinds of degrees offered are those that don’t exist at four-year institutions, he explained, or are in geographic areas where bachelor’s degrees aren’t available. The bill isn’t unprecedented; Colorado Mountain College already has the authority to offer limited bachelor’s degrees, he said. This bill expands opportunity to students who can’t leave home.

The ability to offer bachelor’s degrees to students who can’t leave their rural communities also was a selling point for Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College system. McCallin told the committee that her students have family and work commitments, problems that are greater in rural communities. She cited that among the top three reasons students attend the community colleges is the college’s geographic proximity to home, family and work.

McCallin pointed out that under SB 165, the four-year institutions have a “first right of refusal” on degree programs for the community colleges if there are concerns about competition or duplication. That’s an authority that the community colleges don’t have for degrees at the four-year institutions, or that even the four-year institutions have with each other’s programs. She also noted that she has attempted to partner with some of the four-year institutions on certain programs but those proposals have not been successful.

SB 165 also got support from the West Chamber of Commerce in Jefferson County, and the Colorado Dental Hygiene Association.

The bill now goes on to the House for further action.