Commentary
1:56 pm
Mon June 27, 2011

Community College Degrees

A new battle over education is shaping up in Lansing -- and this time, it’s not over funding. It has to do with whether community colleges should be able to offer four-year bachelor’s degrees.

Traditionally, this has never been the case. Community colleges, or as they used to be called, junior colleges, had two roles:

They provided advanced vocational training for people going into the skilled trades. And, they provided what amounted to the first two years of a four-year education. In my misspent youth, students who went to community colleges were generally those who weren’t academically strong enough to be admitted to a four-year school.

If they had a good two years at Macomb or Oakland or wherever, they then transferred to a four-year school to finish their BA. These days, a lot of my students at Wayne State simultaneously are enrolled in a community college, where they take needed general education courses, ones they are sure will be counted at Wayne.

They do this largely because tuition is cheaper there, and I can’t blame them a bit. Based on what little I know, it seems that the quality of instruction they get is pretty high.

But a controversy has been simmering over whether to allow community colleges -- Michigan has twenty-eight of them -- to offer four-year degrees. Community colleges think this is an idea whose time has come -- that is, for certain technical fields, like nursing.

Traditional colleges and universities have opposed any expansion of the community college mission.

For one thing, they don’t want anyone infringing on their turf and taking their tuition dollars. But there are also legitimate concerns that this might lessen the value of a bachelor’s degree, and lead to “mission creep” that blurs the lines between major research institutions and what are mainly, teaching schools.

Duplication of efforts could also lead to a waste of resources at a time when Michigan can least afford it.

However, there are students in nursing, the culinary arts and certain technological fields who need and want a higher degree, but cannot easily go to a four-year college to get one. Some of these are financially challenged, or not in an area where they can easily commute to a university that offers what they want.  Michigan isn’t the first state to face this dilemma.

Florida, in fact, now has more than a dozen community colleges authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees, and at least sixteen other states are doing the same, mainly in highly technical fields. But what would make the most sense for Michigan?

State Representative John Walsh, a Livonia Republican, has introduced what seems to be a sensible bill to solve this.

His proposed legislation, which passed the House last Thursday, would allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in a very few specialized areas -- cement and maritime technology, energy production technology, and  the culinary arts.

Degrees in nursing would also be allowed, but only if approved by the Michigan Board of Nursing. This seems a reasonable solution to me. We should be concerned about unnecessary duplication of services -- and this bill seems to avoid that.  But we should be even more worried about denying anyone in Michigan the opportunity to improve themselves, add to their education, and get ahead.