New path to a degree on the table

New path to a degree on the table

CHAMPAIGN — At a community college, you can finish work on a high school diploma, earn a certificate in anything from software to automotive technology, get your associate's degree, brush up on a foreign language or try flower-arranging.

In the future, you might also be able to earn a bachelor's degree at an Illinois community college.

Traditionally the purview of Illinois four-year public institutions like the University of Illinois and Eastern Illinois or private schools such as Illinois College and Knox College, some specialized baccalaureate degrees could be offered by the state's community colleges, including Parkland College in Champaign.

The idea is not for community colleges to start offering bachelor of arts degrees in history or psychology. But to offer, for example, a bachelor's degree in applied technology or applied science.

"The word 'applied' is critical. We're not trying to get into any other university's bucket," said Parkland College President Tom Ramage.

He is among about 10 community college presidents exploring the idea, and, if they decide it's a good idea, what the potential political and legal challenges would be. Ramage described the recent talks as "preliminary."

More than 20 other states, including Indiana and Wisconsin, offer baccalaureate degrees through their community college systems. And it's not the first time the idea has been proposed for Illinois. Several years ago, Harper College, then led by Robert Breuder, lobbied the General Assembly to pass legislation to allow community colleges to offer baccalaureates, but that effort stalled. Now the College of DuPage president, Breuder has started the conversation again.

Karen Hunter Anderson, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board, which oversees programs offered at the state's community colleges, said the board is "very interested in examining the possibility." But it has not had an official discussion yet. Members are waiting to review the proposal that eventually will come from the presidents' council.

Board members will have to discuss the agency's rote, budget concerns and other areas if a specific proposal is brought to it.

"Some changes would likely have to be made to the (Illinois Public) Community College Act. In terms of budget concerns, the presidents are interested in developing a proposal that does not require additional state dollars," Hunter Anderson said.

Meanwhile, Hunter Anderson has been doing her own research and talking with her counterparts in other states, including Florida, that have been offering baccalaureates. She has asked them about successes and potential areas of concern.

So far, her impression is that programs have been successful when certain parameters are set, such as limiting the degree program to areas where there have been skills gaps in specific industries, she said.

The group of presidents will meet in the coming months and discuss the issue with their college trustees; with the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which oversees four-year colleges and universities; with the community college board; with people in their communities; and eventually with legislators, according to Ramage.

Ramage believes a baccalaureate in applied science could be a natural extension of what Parkland already offers — associate degrees in applied science. Subject areas could be in automotive technology, graphic design or surgical technology.

Also up for discussion is a bachelor's degree in aviation.

The University of Illinois decided to phase out its aviation program and Parkland is taking it over this fall. It will offer private and commercial pilot training certificates and flight instructor certificates, plus a two-year aviation-related associate's degree in science.

"We do not want 10 (baccalaureate) aviation programs in the state," Ramage said.

Among the questions the group will have to ask in the coming months, he said, are how to locate these bachelor degrees regionally across the state.

Also, should universities like the UI have the right of first refusal to offer such baccalaureate programs?

"All will require a fairly significant amount of investigation on the front end," Ramage said, including a labor market analysis to determine if there would be jobs for those students graduating with the new degrees.

Without data, all you have is opinion, said James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

"We do not want to get way ahead of ourselves right now," he said. The debate shouldn't be about whether community colleges should offer four-year degrees, but finding out whether there is demand for them.

"If we found we need to ramp up capacity in certain bachelor degree programs to meet the needs of Illinois, there are multiple strategies to consider," Applegate said. They include determining whether the demand be met through partnerships between four-year and two-year institutions? Also, what role could extension campuses of the four-year colleges and universities play?

As the process continues, Applegate said it's important that community colleges are not diverted away from their roles as providers of pathways to obtaining credentials, associate degrees or transferring to four-year institutions, he said.

"Until we have all those pieces taken care of (gathering data, examining the efficiency and capacity in community colleges) ... I don't know we need to be adding yet another thing for (community colleges) to do," he said about community colleges.

The coming conversations should not be about what education sector gets to do what, but "what's best for the people of Illinois, especially the adult leaners in Illinois," Applegate said.

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