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During a February meeting of the college council of San Diego City College, cybersecurity professor David Kennemer laid out his proposal to develop a bachelor’s degree in cyber defense and analysis. Up until recently, community colleges could only offer associate’s degrees and workforce certifications. But thanks to 2021’s AB 927, up to 30 community colleges annually can now develop bachelor’s degrees that meet certain stipulations. It would be the first bachelor’s degree offered by City College in its over 100-year history, and only the second offered by a community college in the county.
The law requires community colleges build bachelor’s degrees on existing associate degree programs, and to show unmet local workforce demand in the field. More than 80 percent of companies in San Diego’s cybersecurity hub have had trouble finding workers.
Kennemer warned, though, that AB 927’s requirement that community colleges not duplicate bachelor’s degrees already offered by public four-year universities meant the degree wasn’t a sure shot. CSUs offer some bachelor’s degrees with focuses in cybersecurity and master’s degrees in the subject, but they do not offer a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. City College would have to fight for the degree, Kennemer said.
“I’m sure you haven’t missed the news, it’s cyber-something every day … and I’m sure that’s not lost on the UCs and the (CSUs) so they’re going to want to know what we’re going to do,” Kennemer said. He predicted they would face opposition, after California’s four-year universities objected to community college degrees developed during the pilot program that preceded AB 927.
Now, 10 months later, as California’s community college system nears the completion of its first round of bachelor’s degree proposals, Kennemer’s prediction has come true. The CSU system has challenged multiple degrees proposed by community colleges, including San Diego City College’s in cyber defense and analysis.
When AB 927 passed, expanding on a 2015 pilot program, advocates called it a game changer. They argued it would increase equity in higher education by allowing community college students – who are diverse and generally older and less affluent than students at four-year universities – better access to bachelor’s degrees.
But the requirement that community colleges not offer degrees already offered by public universities was a significant limitation, community college officials said.
It meant that if only one public four-year university on the other side of the state offered a degree, it was off limits for community colleges, regardless of if the program had space for students, or how in-demand workers with that degree were in their communities.
At a time when bachelor’s degrees are increasingly necessary in the workforce, and workers with them are in short supply, advocates say the duplication stipulation is at odds with what the state needs. According to some reports California is on track to have 1.1 million fewer workers with bachelor’s degrees than it needs by 2030. And community colleges in other states already have robust bachelor’s degree programs. Miami Dade Community College, for example, offers nearly 20 bachelor’s degrees.
This stipulation left community colleges trying not to duplicate pre-existing degrees, while still creating new ones that speak to local workforce needs.
‘Bring It On’
This is the first cycle of bachelor’s degree proposals under AB 927, and the approval process has been a work in progress.
“We’ve moved forward this year sort of building the plane while flying it,” said Aisha Lowe, California Community College’s vice chancellor for educational services and support, who’s overseen the degree approval process.
A key part of that has been determining how the public higher education systems should weigh in on issues like duplication, something required by AB 927. But community college officials said if they aren’t able to come to an understanding with four-year universities on if a program is duplicative, they could simply sign a memorandum saying they “agree to disagree” and move forward with the degree. The CSUs agree this uneasy compromise could be a possibility.
The UCs have stayed out of the fray, but earlier this year the CSUs academic senate passed multiple resolutions spelling out the consultation process they wanted, and to study how new degrees could hurt their enrollment and income.
The latest resolution asked California’s legislature to amend AB 927 so community colleges could not offer degrees without resolving objections. It cited City College’s proposed degree as one it was concerned about.
Beth Steffel, chairperson of CSUs academic senate said the resolution was passed because duplicative programs could negatively affect CSU admissions. But community college officials said the change would give CSUs veto power and could stymie progress toward creating new degrees.
According to Alison Wrynn, the CSU associate vice chancellor of academic programs, innovations & faculty development, the CSUs did submit an objection to City College’s degree, but after reviewing course material determined it did not overlap with CSU degrees.
“Our faculty across the system in cybersecurity said ‘No, this degree proposal from San Diego City is really a very narrow slice of what we do at the CSU,’” Wrynn said. “It’s a little bit different.”
But, Lowe said, the CSU system still has not officially withdrawn its initial objection. So, City College is stuck in limbo, awaiting the signature of the CSU system to the required MOU, which has not yet been sent. And Wrynn could not confirm whether they will sign it.
“Until we see whatever is written … I can’t tell you what the (CSU) system would sign off on or not sign off on,” Wrynn said.
This uncertainty has led to a shift in strategy from community colleges. The seven proposals already finalized were approved by the president of the board of governors, but if the CSUs choose to not sign off on City College’s degree, and the two others they still object to, the chancellor’s office may bring them up for a full board vote at its January meeting – essentially bypassing the CSUs’ blessing. Lowe called the situation “politically tenuous.”
“If we end up bringing a recommendation for the full board to vote on, it’s less about trying to make a point and is more about sort of codifying in the record … the support for these programs,” Lowe said.
Lowe said the community college chancellor’s office thinks the law clearly allows them to approve bachelor’s programs over objections.
“While the CSU academic senate and perhaps some CSU leadership may desire otherwise … they do not have veto power over the approval of these programs and over community college curriculum,” Lowe said.
At November’s Board of Governors meeting, the colleges whose proposals still had outstanding objections presented them and advocated for their necessity in an attempt to rally support – and it seemed clear they had it. Lowe also prepped the board members about being ready to support the programs in January, over possible objections from CSU partners.
“Bring it on,” responded one board member.
Duplication is a ‘Red Herring’
But community colleges don’t just want to offer a few degrees that they can prove don’t compete with public universities. They want to further expand which four-year degrees they can offer to include those already offered at CSUs.
“The duplication (stipulation) limits our ability to meet the needs of the workforce, industry and our students,” San Diego City College President Ricky Shabazz said. “People go into education, and they often say I do so because of education – but this is politics. This isn’t education,” he added referring to the administrative push and pull.
Shabazz would like to see community colleges’ ability to offer bachelor’s degrees expanded to include those already offered at CSUs, as is the case in other states.
“I think that the Academic Senate certainly, and probably the CSU as a whole, would be opposed to that,” Steffel, the chair of CSUs academic senate said of the prospect of expansion.
A key driver of community colleges’ pitch is that many four-year universities simply don’t have enough space for the number of students who want to attend. All undergraduate programs at seven CSUs are set to be impacted during the 2023-2024 school year. That spells trouble for fields like nursing, for which the pandemic exacerbated a shortage of workers, and which community colleges think they’re well suited to step into. Many already have two-year degrees in the field.
But Steffel said expansion comes down to money.
“The programs are impacted because there’s not sufficient funding to have the capacity for the students that we would take if we had the funding,” she said.
Shabazz isn’t the only one who wants the duplication stipulation eliminated.
“The whole issue of duplication is really fundamentally one of institutions,” said Amy Costa, recently elected President of the California Community College’s Board of Governors. “I want to move away from what the institution wants, desires or worries about into an area where we’re focused on what’s best for students.”
At a July Board of Governors meeting Costa said she thinks duplication is a “red herring” and the focus should be on increasing student capacity.
“I fully support us having that conversation with our friends at the University of California and CSU because … if we’re truly student-centered, it is about having a place for them to go to get this bachelor’s degree,” Costa said.
Lowe agreed, saying she believes the conversation needs to take place so community colleges can help fulfill workforce needs and fill gaps where programs are impacted.
“Though we will need (the Board of Governors’) support to achieve that because (it) will require some delicate political dancing,” Lowe said.