Equity Can’t Wait: Now is the Time for the Community College Baccalaureate Degree

By Larry Galizio, Ph.D.
President & CEO, Community College League of California

The equity mission of California’s community colleges necessitates liberating the 72 districts and 114 colleges to decide locally whether or not to offer baccalaureate degrees.

California’s public community colleges are the most ethnically and socioeconomically diverse higher education institutions in the state, and their geographic reach—almost 90 percent of Californians live within 10 miles of a community college—is unparalleled.

Recent data indicates that almost 43 percent of CCC students are Hispanic/Latino, and approximately 62 percent are students of color.

Statewide, more than 58 percent of Asians and almost 45 percent of non-Hispanic whites possess a bachelor’s degree, compared with 13 percent for Latinos and 27 percent for California’s African-American population (Gándara & Cuellar, 2016). And the proportion and number of high-school graduates matriculating to a community college is greater in California than in any other state (Geiser & Atkinson, 2013).

CCCs also serve the largest proportion of returning students with almost one-third 30 years old or older. Yet, even with a substantial number of public and private institutions of higher education, California ranks in the bottom 10 states for Bachelor’s Degree production per 1,000 students (Geiser & Atkinson, 2013).

In addition to the state’s failure to adequately serve underrepresented minorities, geographical inequities in degree-attainment and opportunity are pronounced. Place-bound individuals seeking postsecondary education to enhance their individual and familial socio-economic conditions are constrained by zip code. As Superintendent/President, Dr. Kevin Walthers of Allan Hancock College documents, California includes areas accurately described as higher education deserts. These are areas where associate degree-granting institutions are located more than 100 miles from the nearest baccalaureate degree-granting Cal State University Campus. Individuals attending Lassen, Siskiyous, Cuesta, Cerro Coso, Allan Hancock, and Palo Verde community colleges would have to travel over 100 miles to earn quality baccalaureate degrees. (Online degrees offered primarily by for-profit entities may exist, however, such options are often quite expensive, have much lower completion rates, and simply are not practical for many disciplines and workforce programs).

Research on Florida’s extensive community college baccalaureate degree offerings demonstrates that program alumni tend to be older and more place-bound than their counterparts graduating from four-year institutions (Shah, 2010). Grothe (2009) and Shah (2010) found that place-bound students in Nevada, Texas, and Florida would have applied to other programs or would not have continued their education at all if BA degree programs had not been available locally.

With good reason, a primary focus of the community college baccalaureate degree discussion has centered on labor demand and workforce development. Baby boomers are retiring in large numbers; healthcare, technology-enabled services and manufacturing, and a variety of regional industry needs have existing and projected skilled labor shortages. The Public Policy Institute of California’s oft-cited projection of industry’s need for 1.1 million baccalaureate degree-educated individuals by 2030 is a compelling argument for the community college baccalaureate since our existing higher education capacity is insufficient to confront this challenge. Therefore, some of the strongest and most persuasive supporters of the community college baccalaureate are California’s business leaders.*

Equally important, yet insufficiently considered by policymakers and higher education stakeholders, are the equity issues inherent to this policy debate. A notable exception to this omission is the important research of Patricia Gándara and Marcela Cuellar of The Civil Rights Project, and specifically their paper: The Baccalaureate in the California Community College: Current Challenge & Future Prospects. The authors advocate for a more explicit focus on the equity ramifications of the community college baccalaureate. Additionally, they encourage BA programs likely to be more attractive to underrepresented minorities and more deliberate recruitment efforts of underserved populations.

While acknowledging the need for statewide coordination and efficient use of limited resources for public higher education, underserved populations and California’s economic and civic well-being cannot afford to wait for the latest multiyear effort to revisit and revise the 57 year-old Master Plan. Sufficient checks and balances on community college districts and colleges exist within the status quo, and California’s political and economic present and future demand immediate adaptation to the dynamic state, national, and global landscape.

All 72 districts and 114 community colleges in our state comply with the most extensive regime of laws, administrative rules, shared governance structures, and norms governing finances and curriculum in the US. Locally-elected trustees are accountable to their constituents. Chancellors and presidents are accountable to the Boards that hire them and conduct their performance reviews. And California’s community colleges are accountable to their district constituencies and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

Yet in many of the areas of our state, colleges are not permitted to respond to the 2017 realities of their communities nor adequately prepare their constituents for the present and future. And these constraints are largely the result of political and economic decisions created 57 years ago (when Apple was merely a fruit and Google a misspelled math term).

At least 22 states in the U.S. have demonstrated the feasibility of the community college baccalaureate degree. Yet, the state with the largest percentage and number of undergraduates attending community colleges in the nation remains in a holding pattern mired in political turf wars.

The community college baccalaureate in California is an issue of workforce development, economic demand, and equity for our underserved and underrepresented individuals and families. For students of color and those living in California’s education deserts, one of Dr. King’s quotations seems particularly apt:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is not time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”



Geiser, S., & Atkinson, R.C. (2013). Beyond the master plan: The case for restructuring baccalaureate education in California. California Journal of Politics and Policy, 5(1), 67-122. Doi:10.1515/cjpp-2012-0042

Grothe, M. (2009). The community college applied baccalaureate degree: Employers’ and graduates’ perspectives (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/13400/?sequence=1

Shah, V.J. (2010). An exploratory study of community college teacher education baccalaureate alumni experiences (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://www.accbd.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/dissertation.pdf


FOOTNOTE: *One example comes from Wallace Walrod, chief economic advisor for the Orange County Business Council. Walrod identifies some 4,000 jobs in the Orange County region - primarily in healthcare – that remain unfilled for lack of educated and qualified individuals in the area. Walrod explains, “Right now Orange County companies have to import individuals from across the nation and across the world because they can’t find local talent in these fields. Anything colleges can do to train more skilled workers in these areas would only help local businesses” http://www.ocregister.com/2014/09/30/four-year-degrees-for-half-price-get-ready