Indian River State — a community college located halfway between Florida's bustling port cities of Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral — has sought to meet the state's workforce development goals for more than 50 years.
Yet a major barrier has been in its way. The stretch of eastern coastal Florida that it serves has few four-year colleges, with the closest public university more than 60 miles away.
That poses a challenge to drawing companies in need of skilled workers. So in 2008, Indian River State took advantage of a Florida law that allows community colleges to launch bachelor's programs if they can help meet the state's workforce needs.
Indian River is far from alone. Community colleges awarded more than 17,000 bachelor's degrees in 2014, up from about 1,700 in 2000, according to a working paper from University of Florida researchers. In total, 121 two-year institutions offer bachelor's degrees, according to data from the University of Washington's Community College Research Initiatives.
And that number is poised to grow, as some 24 states and counting allow their two-year institutions to award bachelor's degrees. Like Indian River's programs, they are often designed to address education deserts or labor shortages and therefore are more workforce-oriented than those offered at four-year colleges.
Despite the momentum, such efforts have gotten heavy pushback. Neighboring four-year universities may worry community colleges are encroaching on their territory, while others are concerned two-year schools will award bachelor's degrees of lower quality.
From January 2017 through April 2018, 54 bills related to bachelor's degrees at community colleges were introduced in state legislatures, according to the Education Commission of the States. While most of the bills hoped to expand four-year degrees to community colleges, only four passed.
Even so, proponents of four-year degrees at community colleges often tout their ability to boost economic mobility for students. At Indian River, for example, student outcomes have been promising: More than half (56%) of its students transfer into a bachelor's degree program, compared to the national average of 32%.
"This population that's working in our community may be topped out in the job they have in terms of promotion and advancement with a two-year degree," said Edwin Massey, president of Indian River. "So they will come back, take advantage of the local four-year degrees, avoiding the drive to and from (a far away university), and then become eligible for promotion in their existing job."
Community colleges contend that their bachelor's degrees provide a way for more students to earn a four-year degree. Only around one-third of all community colleges students transfer to a four-year institution, and even fewer go on to earn a bachelor's, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
But some community colleges boast promising outcomes for their bachelor's degree programs. Those include South Texas College, which launched the first of its four bachelor's of applied science degrees in 2005 in order to meet the state's workforce needs.
Since then, the programs' enrollment has exploded, growing from just 14 students in the first year to more than 700 students in the fall of 2018. So far, the college has graduated more than 1,800 students with bachelor's degrees.
Most students (88%) enter the programs with an associate degree, with roughly nine out of 10 graduating within three years, according to figures provided by South Texas College. Persistence rates of the four programs from fall 2017 to fall 2018 hovered between 64% and 94%. That's compared to an 81% fall-to-fall persistence rate at four-year institutions and 62% at two-year colleges, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Internal transfers may be more attractive for students attached to their community college, said Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at nonpartisan think tank New America.
"When (students) are successful at their community college, the idea of them having to transfer to another institution can be really discouraging," she said. "They like to continue on in the place where they have been successful (and) they feel a lot of strong attachment."
Getting off the ground
For community colleges, bachelor's degrees can be one way to attract students amid a nearly decade-long slump in enrollment — but getting buy-in from local lawmakers and university leaders may prove difficult.
Ohio now allows community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in certain fields, an effort spearheaded by former Gov. John Kasich to increase the state's credential attainment, Community College Daily reported.
However, like other states, Ohio placed several restrictions on the practice. Those include making sure the degrees don't replicate those offered at the state's four-year institutions unless they demonstrate "a unique approach," and requiring participating institutions to forge agreements with local employers to train their students and employ them upon graduation.
At Sinclair Community College, which is rolling out four-year degrees in unmanned aerial systems and aviation technology this fall semester, getting local stakeholders' sign-off was easy.
"There was no local college offering any kind of aviation degree, and the industry is absolutely booming," said Clay Pittman, chair of Sinclair's aviation technology department. "We were able to create a degree that's going to produce graduates that (can) walk right out and get employed by airlines."
Dayton, Ohio, where the college is located, is also home to an international airport and an Air Force base. Before the addition, students interested in a similar four-year degree in aviation had to transfer to colleges hours away.
"When (students) are successful at their community college ... they like to continue on in the place where they have been successful (and) they feel a lot of strong attachment."
Mary Alice McCarthy
Director, New America's Center on Education and Skills
In some cases, community colleges may be able to offer programs that four-year institutions are not interested in or "well-positioned" to teach, New America's McCarthy said.
Take Centralia College's bachelor of applied science in diesel technology, which launched in 2014. Although the program is one of only a handful in the country — and the only one on the West Coast — McCarthy said the nearby universities in Washington state may not be interested in offering such a technical degree.
Meanwhile, students who are wary of taking out loans can benefit from such degrees by saving on community college's often-lower tuition or sticking close to home to get a bachelor's degree.
"When you think about some of the rural communities where the nearest four-year, degree-granting institution is a long way away, that's just not very efficient for students (who would) have to transfer when they could potentially stay in their community and finish their four-year degree," McCarthy said.
Impact on four-year universities
Often, four-year institutions would rather forge stronger transfer pathways with the state's two-year institutions than go head-to-head with them for students. Around 68% of presidents at four-year colleges are opposed to community colleges offering bachelor's degrees, while only 12% support such measures, a recent survey from Inside Higher Ed found.
Officials from the University of Wyoming, for example, unsuccessfully lobbied their state lawmakers to prevent community colleges from being able to offer bachelor's degrees, arguing that doing so would result in duplicated programs.
"At a time when our state is talking about efficiency and streamlining, this would do the exact opposite," Laurie Nichols, then president of the U of Wyoming, told state legislators, according to The Associated Press.
A study conducted in Florida suggests such programs may, in fact, benefit some four-year universities. Using data from 2000 to 2014, University of Florida researchers found that after community colleges started offering bachelor's degrees in the state, degree completions rose at four-year universities but declined at for-profit schools.
"We were able to create a degree that's going to produce graduates that (can) walk right out and get employed by airlines."
Aviation department chair, Sinclair Community College
Dennis Kramer, one of the researchers, said for-profits likely took the hit because they cater to the same nontraditional students as community colleges. "Now that there's a low-cost baccalaureate option at community colleges with similar instructional convenience for nontraditional learners, they're going to substitute into that because it's cheaper at the end of the day," he said.
The report points out community college students in pursuit of bachelor's degrees may have taken more classes that four-year institutions would offer credit for, making it easier for students to transfer and complete on time.
However, the study has yet to be replicated elsewhere and doesn't address some lingering questions, such as how graduates with bachelor's degrees from community colleges fare in the labor market compared to those who graduated from four-year institutions.
Researchers are hoping to soon have those answers. Kramer, for instance, is working on a paper that will examine those differences for teachers in Florida. And McCarthy hopes to show through research that bachelor's degrees offered by community colleges are boosting degree attainment, not just siphoning off students who would've gone to a four-year institution.
"We really want to show that with the numbers," she said, "but if you go out and meet the students, it's hard to not come away with that impression."