Matching careers and community colleges

The California Master Plan for Higher Education decreed that it was the job of the state's community colleges to train students for technical careers and for the sort of semi-professional occupations that generally require a two-year associate's degree. Those who wanted a bachelor's degree — and the sort of jobs that go with one — could move on to either California State University or the University of California.

But the master plan was written during the postwar baby boom, and like many of us who were born back then, it's beginning to develop wrinkles. In 1960, the year the plan was approved, office manager jobs required only a high school diploma. Now most employers require a bachelor's degree for this job and others like it. At the same time, fewer Californians are able to afford a four-year education. Many don't live within commuting distance of a Cal State or UC campus, and living expenses are the greater part of college costs.

So it makes all the sense in the world to expand the degrees that community colleges are allowed to confer. A proposal now under consideration by the chancellor's office, for instance, would allow community colleges to grant bachelor's degrees in nursing. Graduating more highly trained nurses would be a service to the state, which needs them, and a boost to employment as well. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nurses have a bright future, with 26% growth in jobs expected this decade. The state's community colleges have been training nurses for a long time, and the current proposal to allow them to confer a bachelor's degree would simply expand an existing program to meet the demands of the field.

But not everyone agrees. Opponents — including officials from California's public four-year colleges, which apparently don't want the competition — are dragging out the Master Plan for Higher Education as an argument against the proposal.

A report released last week by the Little Hoover Commission called for overhauling the master plan, putting a new emphasis on online courses and on moving more students into and through the system. The report is unconvincing on many fronts: It's still not clear to what extent online education will reduce costs, and there are signs that just graduating more students from college doesn't necessarily lead to a more robust economy. Sometimes what it leads to is more college graduates, with degrees in majors for which there is little demand, taking jobs for which they're overqualified.

California should not be wedded to every detail of the master plan, but it must be strategic about the changes it makes. Allowing community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in nursing is a smart way to deviate from a plan that has served the state well but requires some updating. The state should look for other key areas of study in which a bachelor's degree from a community college might be practical and helpful.

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