CA bill seeks to offer 4-year degrees at community colleges

SAN DIEGO - California could be short one million workers with bachelor's degrees in 11 years if current trends continue.

But one state senator hopes to tackle the problem that he said is already an issue for many of California's workers.

Senate Bill 850, authored by Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), would allow each of the state's 112 community colleges to offer one applied baccalaureate degree in an eight-year pilot program. The bill will land on the Senate Education Committee's agenda on Thursday, April 24.

Block, who was president of the San Diego Community College District board of trustees for eight years, said the lack of what he calls "workforce degrees" has been an ongoing problem.

"There's a skills gap in this country," said Block, who has attempted to pass similar bills since 2004. "We're not preparing enough students for the workforce."

The lack of space at California State University and University of California schools force community college graduates to earn their four-year degrees at costly private colleges or enter the workforce with two-year degrees, Block said. It's a big problem for California's community colleges, which serve 2.4 million students making it the largest postsecondary education system in the U.S.

Block said the bill would allow community colleges to offer degrees such as respiratory therapy, public safety administration and automotive management. It would prevent "unnecessary duplication" by forbidding community colleges from offering degrees that are offered at nearby CSUs or UCs.

But the bill does ask for a change in California's 1960 Master Plan, which states that the community colleges' "primary mission" is to provide the first two years of undergraduate education.

"That was a great plan in the '60s," Block said. "But it no longer addresses our workforce needs. It served us well but we need to update it."

If Block's proposal becomes law, California would become the 22nd state with community colleges that offer four-year degrees.

San Diego Community College District Chancellor Constance Carroll, who has been vocal about her support for the bill, said the lack of four-year degrees is a "serious problem."

"The time has come for community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees," she said. "There are many fields where our students are no longer competitive and in some cases, no longer being hired. The issue is about workforce training and making students eligible to enter the workforce."

In about a decade, the demand for employees with four-year degrees could increase.

In a January 2014 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, 41 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor's degree in 2025 but only 35 percent of working-age adults will meet that qualification.

The report also stated that 35 percent of high school graduates attend community colleges in California but only one in 10 students transfer to a 4-year university.

It can be considered an economic problem considering college graduates earn 50 percent more than workers with only a high school education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The cost of implementing the bill is still unclear but Block said he hopes it will become a public-private partnership with companies, like hospitals, who are in need of workers with four-year degrees.

If the Senate Education Committee approves the bill next week, the bill will be presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee. If the bill receives approval from both houses of the State Legislature, it could be implemented as early as next fall.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated the Senate Education Committee meeting was scheduled for April 23. It was rescheduled to April 24.

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