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Could Texas Community Colleges Soon Offer Baccalaureate Degrees?

Callie Richmond for Texas Tribune
Students listen to a lecture in the College of Health Professions at Texas State University.

State lawmakers met yesterday to discuss whether more Texas community colleges should offer baccalaureate degrees.

Traditionally, higher education has always worked like this: If you graduate from a two-year college you receive an Associate’s degree, and if you graduate from a four-year college, you receive a bachelor’s degree.

But today, 17 states allow community colleges to offer varying types of bachelor’s degrees – including Texas. Three community colleges in the state offer bachelor’s degrees. None of the schools are in Central Texas. They’re in Houston, Midland and the Rio Grande Valley. Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes told the House Higher Education Committee, which was tasked with studying the possibility before the next legislature in 2017, that he believes other community colleges should be able to offer those programs, too.

“If we do this in a measured, thoughtful way, this would create another low-cost pathway for people in Texas to get a baccalaureate degree,” Paredes said at Thursday’s committee meeting.

Cost is one driver – community colleges are much less expensive. Just this week, the UT Board of Regents discussed increasing tuition at eight of its universities.

“The issue of growing expense in higher education and the fees and tuition at universities are going up more quickly than commensurate cost in our community college,” Paredes said. “I think it’s worth a try.”

Some four-year universities are concerned allowing more community college bachelor's degrees might create competition between two- and four-year schools, which usually cooperate with one another to help students transition from one school to the other.

“I’m not anti-competition, but this is our team that we’re trying to build. So, we don’t want to build unnecessary competition when the capacity is not really at a shortage. I think we need to err on the side of caution on this,” said committee member Rep. Myra Crownover.

But Paredes thinks community colleges will be intentional about adding four-year degrees.

“It’s expensive, it’s not easy to get accreditation,” Paredes said. “It’s a long process.”

Paredes thinks any community college that wants to offer baccalaureate degrees must get approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, too. 

Cindy Zolnierek, executive director of the Texas Nurses Association, says the state needs to make sure these programs are accredited, so they don’t end up being a disservice for students:

“One of safeguards we want to have in place for graduates from community college at the baccalaureate level is that doesn’t become a ceiling to them,” she said. “That they don’t have any less opportunity than any other nurse graduating with a bachelor’s degree from a university.”

Higher education experts testified that four-year degrees at community colleges could help people get degrees in areas where there are a shortage of employees, like nursing.

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