Bellevue College: Bachelor's Degrees Fulfill the Community College Mission

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Higher education has traditionally been divided along very clear lines: colleges and universities offer bachelor's and graduate degrees, while community colleges offer two-year associate degrees and certificates. That line is not as clear anymore, with 21 states now allowing their community and technical colleges to develop bachelor's degrees, up from 11 states just eight years ago. The community college baccalaureate is an increasingly popular trend because it's an effective way for community colleges to fulfill their workforce development mission.

Washington's Higher Education Coordinating Board (now called the Washington Student Achievement Council) concluded several years ago that universities could not provide enough graduates with bachelor's degrees to meet the state's growing employment needs. As a result, the legislature gave community colleges the green light to develop certain applied bachelor's degrees. These practical, career-oriented degrees are designed to meet employment needs in specific high-demand occupations. The applied degrees build on two-year professional-technical degrees; the junior and senior years can vary from a two-year management track following the two-year technical education to a continuation of a technical degree.

Bellevue College (BC), located near Seattle in Washington's Puget Sound region, has created five applied bachelor's degree programs to meet specific employment needs. The first, in Radiation and Imaging Sciences, began enrolling students in 2007 and graduated its first class in 2009. This was followed with four-year degrees in Interior Design in 2009 and Healthcare Technology and Management in 2012. BC recently received approval to offer two additional bachelor's degrees, in Nursing and in Information Systems and Technology; those programs will enroll their first students in fall of 2013.

The move to offer these degrees served as the impetus for the institution to change its name, from Bellevue Community College to Bellevue College, to better reflect its evolving nature—from a two-year college to a hybrid institution that offers both two- and four-year degrees.

To meet the needs of both their students and area employers, it's becoming increasingly necessary for some community colleges to offer four-year degrees, for several reasons.

First, the minimum education needed to enter particular fields is shifting from a two-year degree to a four-year degree. This is especially true for the field of nursing, in which the complexity of healthcare has led many hospitals and healthcare providers to require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing of all nursing hires. Veteran nurses may also need a bachelor's to advance in their profession.

Second, traditional four-year colleges or universities are not conveniently located near all communities. In many cases, the local community college is the only institution of higher education accessible to residents. Those community colleges that can offer bachelor's degrees enable many more people to access this type of degree.

Third, bachelor's degrees in many fields simply don't exist at universities, positioning community colleges to fill this void. BC works extensively with local employers to create degree programs that meet particular employment needs in the community. The college's Radiation and Imaging Sciences program, for example, teaches students management skills and more advanced technical skills, and is the only one of its kind in the state.

To identify a potential bachelor's degree program at your institution, look for a gap between the number of graduates with a particular degree in your region and the current or projected demand for these graduates among area employers. If it's a high-demand field, but existing programs at other colleges and universities are meeting the need, then you probably shouldn't offer the degree at your college.

Study employment trends. At BC, we created a degree in Health Information Technology based partly on trends showing that the computerization of health records is something that all healthcare organizations will be undertaking. Workers with education and training in this field will be in demand for many years to come. Also, study demographic trends to ensure a sustainable demand for the program will exist among potential students in the future.

Finally, as you consider adding four-year degrees, familiarize yourself with the approval process. Even if your institution has authority from the state, you will still need a minimum of two years to identify a potential degree, research and draft a proposal, secure the necessary approvals from your state's higher education authority and your institution's accrediting agency, develop the degree requirements, and hire the necessary faculty and staff.

Contact: Leslie Heizer Newquist, Director of Applied Baccalaureate Development, 425.564.2034