By Nanette Asimov
Higher Education Reporter, San Francisco Chronicle
Tamara Martin, a nursing student at College of San Mateo, desperately wants a bachelor's degree in her field, so she applied to Cal State East Bay because it had 60 open spots and would surely have room. But 199 people had the same idea.
As demand for bachelor's degrees grows in health professions, information technology and law enforcement, also growing is pressure on California lawmakers to let community colleges offer bachelor's degrees in high-need areas. One bill introduced in January could have students enrolling in such programs by fall 2015 if approved.
"Oh my gosh. There's beyond a need," Martin said, noting that hospitals, hoping to distinguish themselves in rankings, are hiring registered nurses with bachelor's degrees over those with two-year degrees.
Nationwide, 21 states let community colleges offer bachelor's degrees. But the issue is controversial in California because its Master Plan for Higher Education - as beloved as a bible - generally limits the level of degrees to be awarded by each system: associate degree for community colleges, master's for California State University and doctoral for theUniversity of California.
As Martin discovered, however, student demand often outstrips California's capacity to provide bachelor's degrees.
"To meet the projected demand by 2025, the state would need to immediately increase the number (of bachelor's degrees) awarded by almost 60,000 per year - about 40 percent above current levels," says a newly released report by the California Community College Baccalaureate Degree Study Group, convened last year by Brice Harris, chancellor of California's community college system.
The group chewed on the issue from every angle and concluded that such a program should not replace community colleges' mission or duplicate other programs. Instead, it should address unmet needs of employers.
"I see almost no downside to it," said Constance Carroll, chief executive of the San Diego Community College District and study group member.
"This is about workforce preparation. The universities don't have programs in many of these areas, and if they do, they lack the capacity."
That's a popular argument, but it misses the mark, said another study group member,Chris Mallon, CSU's assistant vice chancellor for academic programs.
Mallon agreed that some professions, like nursing, do need bachelor's degrees because research shows that the patients of nurses with bachelor's degrees do better.
But she said too many students want to become nurses, and the jobs aren't there.
"We can't give everyone the degree they want," she said.
At the same time, she added, "there is huge employer demand in science, technology, engineering and math fields, but we can't get people into those."
She said the Master Plan that regulates what each higher education system can do "has been working for 50 years. We think it's a good approach."
Yet CSU itself won the right to offer doctoral degrees in 2005.
"These were applied doctorates that the UC wasn't interested in expanding - in educational leadership, nursing practice, physical therapy," Mallon said. "So it is different. We were meeting a scarcity."
A check of the records, however, shows that Cal State San Diego offers doctorates in fields also offered by UC, including biology, psychology, statistics and chemistry.
"It's a little hypocritical if CSU says community colleges shouldn't offer bachelor's degrees, because they're the ones who already got a change in the Master Plan," said state Sen.Marty Block, D-San Diego. He has introduced SB850, which would create an eight-year pilot program letting some colleges offer one bachelor's degree each in a high-need field.
Three such bills have failed since 2009.
"Now is a very different time," said Block, citing the improved economy. "And the governor has proposed $50 million to get more graduates with bachelor's degrees. We might be able to access that."
Block said students would pay less than CSU's $5,970 yearly tuition but more than the $46 a credit charged by community colleges.
One field that some say is ripe for a community college bachelor's degree is respiratory therapy.
Patients having trouble breathing see respiratory therapists, often in the intensive care unit. Their equipment is highly technical and evolving, and lives are at stake in their work, said Ray Hernandez, a licensed respiratory therapist and a dean at Skyline College, a San Bruno community college.
"An associate degree is just not enough to prepare respiratory therapists," he said, adding that the profession is moving toward requiring a bachelor's in the next several years.
Yet besides online courses, the only bachelor's program offered in California is at the private Loma Linda University in Riverside, Hernandez said.
Ric Perez, a respiratory therapist at San Francisco General Hospital, pays about $13,650 a year to the private, online National University.
"If it were offered at City College (of San Francisco), it would be more than cut in half," Perez said. "It certainly would be better for my pocketbook. And I don't like the online."
Mallon of CSU said she was open to hearing more about bachelor's degrees in fields like respiratory therapy where CSU has no program.
But she said that professions usually approach CSU to ask if a bachelor's program can be developed.
"No one has done that," Mallon said. "So I don't know how imminent a need there is."