Dan Walters

Opinion: Community colleges’ good move

Occasionally – albeit, too rarely – common sense seeps into the state Capitol, defying the strenuous efforts of self-serving interests to banish it.

One of those occasions was last August, when both legislative houses, without a single dissenting vote, passed Senate Bill 850, which – on a limited, pilot basis – grants some community college districts the authority to offer four-year bachelor’s degree programs.

His fellow legislators heeded Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, who argued that with demand for college-educated workers and applications for slots in the state’s universities outstripping supply, and with university costs soaring, it makes no sense to artificially restrict classes at low-cost community colleges.

“We’re in a different time now,” Block said of his third attempt to expand community college programs. “California is in a better position now to invest in closing our skills gap. It’s wishful thinking to believe we can meet the challenge of producing another 60,000 bachelor degrees a year without using community colleges, and the longer we delay in using them, the further behind we will fall.”

SB 850 put some limits on what should be a landmark shift in how college educations are offered in California – a shift that 21 other states have already made.

Initially, only 15 community college districts are authorized to offer the baccalaureate programs and they will be restricted to fields – mostly vocational – that are not available at the state’s four-year universities, such as dental hygiene and advanced automotive technology.

Even with those limits, however, the response has been overwhelming with half of the state’s 72 community college districts submitting expressions of interest to the state community college chancellor’s office.

Chancellor Brice Harris called the submissions “heartening” and added, quite accurately, “They are pioneering a new mission … and opening up pathways for Californians who may not have had the chance to earn a four-year degree.”

It’s not a moment too early.

California is undergoing a massive demographic shift as its baby-boom generation heads into retirement from the workforce.

Potentially, we face a crippling shortage of workers for a technology-heavy economy, but the four-year schools are just about maxed out and their costs have been soaring.

Allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureate programs could respond to both problems, even if it breaches the pedagogic demarcation lines of the state’s half-century-old Master Plan for Higher Education.

But that means the plan is out of sync with 21st-century reality and needs a top-to-bottom overhaul. Former Gov. Pat Brown played a leading role in writing the plan, and his son, Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed SB 850, should take the lead in making it relevant again.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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