The evolution of community colleges: Michigan latest state seeking to expand role of two-year colleges

Traditionally, community colleges have served an important but limited role in higher education. They offer students two-year associate’s degrees. Students typically are able to attend classes close to home, sparing them the need to pay room and board; and they prepare students to enroll in four-year universities where they can work toward bachelor degrees. A bill in the Michigan legislature would  make that state the latest to authorize community colleges to offer four-year degrees for students.

House Bill 4496, sponsored by Rep. John Walsh, would limit community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in certain fields. In its current form, the bill would allow community colleges in Michigan to offer bachelor’s degrees only in nursing, cement technology, maritime technology, energy production technology, or culinary arts. The bill passed the Michigan House in June, 67-43. It is now in the Senate Education Committee.

Other states have already expanded the role of community colleges. Seventeen states allow community colleges to award associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association. Florida leads all states with 14 community colleges authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees.

Nearly 1,200 community colleges nationwide serve more than 12 million students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. That organization reports 48 public community colleges awarded bachelor degrees in 2008.

Those who support an expanded role for community colleges generally contend the policy enables more students to obtain bachelor degrees by making it more convenient to enroll in institutions closer to their homes. This would be particularly beneficial to older students who work while taking classes. Opponents, however, claim it would put a larger financial burden on higher education to expand the number of degree programs and courses offered at community colleges.

For a list of states allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, see