Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation this week that will allow the state's community colleges to offer some bachelor's degrees if they can show a four-year program meets student demand and workforce needs.
While all of Arizona's community colleges can now offer four-year degrees, those in the state's two most populous counties — Maricopa and Pima — will have limits on the number of programs they can stand up and how much tuition they can charge.
More states are considering allowing community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees or are expanding such existing programs.
Ducey, a Republican, praised the new law as a way to expand higher education access to underrepresented students and reskill the state's workforce.
Around two dozen states allow community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees, though many ensure they don't duplicate programs at four-year colleges. Proponents of such initiatives say they increase college access and help meet local employers' needs. Opponents worry that they undercut programs at universities and reduce cross-sector partnerships.
Arizona's district boards will approve four-year programs at community colleges based on whether they meet workforce needs and student demand, as well as whether the schools have enough financial resources to launch and sustain programs. They will also assess whether the new degrees would unnecessarily duplicate programs offered by other Arizona colleges. Five years after debuting a program, community colleges will need to report on their student outcomes and whether they met workforce needs, including information about student job placement.
Research is growing on how community college bachelor's degrees impact students and the workforce. People who earned four-year degrees from Florida community colleges brought in $10,000 more in annual wages four quarters after graduation than those who earned an associate degree in a similar field, according to recent research from New America, a left-leaning think tank.
California, which is piloting bachelor's degrees at 15 community colleges, last year completed an analysis of the effort. It found that roughly half of the programs produced graduates who were better prepared for industry roles and needed less on-the-job training than other candidates. However, it also noted low student demand for the programs.
State lawmakers are weighing whether to expand the pilot to all community colleges in the state, so long as their four-year programs don't duplicate those offered at universities. Illinois is similarly considering a bill that would allow community colleges to offer four-year programs in early childhood education.
Debra Bragg, a fellow at New America, said such initiatives have the potential to increase access to bachelor's degrees for students who otherwise wouldn't obtain them. “It's kind of a sea change in higher education if we're willing to take the risk,” Bragg said.