Let more community colleges offer four-year degrees

All hardworking Texas families looking to move up the economic ladder should have the opportunity to compete for today's best and fastest-growing jobs, and an integral part of making those dreams a reality is access to affordable educational opportunities.

After all, higher education is more important than ever. While a high school degree was once enough for many Americans to achieve economic success, a bachelor's degree is often a prerequisite for jobs in today's 21st century economy. Texas has led the nation in job growth, and economic indicators point to continued growth and the rising need for a skilled workforce, particularly in the critical fields of nursing and applied sciences.

Unfortunately, attending a public four-year college or university in Texas has gotten considerably more expensive over the past dozen years. In fact, the average cost of full-time attendance at a public university increased 104 percent from 2003 to 2013 — more than doubling.

In an effort to address the growing need for a skilled workforce and the spike in the cost of higher education, we filed legislation this session — Senate Bill 271 and House Bill 1384 — to carefully implement an alternative pathway for students to obtain a four-year degree.

These bipartisan bills provide the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board with the authority to allow community colleges that meet certain criteria to offer bachelor's degrees in either applied science or nursing — provided that the schools use a measured, phased-in approach and meet other safeguards.

Proposed community college baccalaureate degrees would be reviewed according to the same standards used for baccalaureate program approvals at universities. This would include demonstrating short- and long-term workforce needs in the field, adequate faculty and library resources to meet accreditation standards, sufficient funding to support the program without harming existing programs, and regular review of processes to ensure quality and effectiveness.

The proposed legislation offers another avenue for students and working adults who want a more affordable higher education experience in pursuit of a four-year degree. Community colleges offer lower costs relative to universities; estimates put the cost of a four-year degree at a community college around $10,000 to $12,000. Community colleges also often provide more flexibility by offering courses in the evening, on weekends and online, making it much easier for folks with full-time jobs to continue their education. And community college graduates are more likely to remain and work in their local communities, ensuring that the same public that invests in their education also reaps the benefits.

Community colleges can and should be leveraged to provide limited and affordable four-year degrees in areas of the state where needs are the greatest. Seventeen states, including Texas, already allow some community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

Three Texas community colleges are currently authorized to offer a maximum of five baccalaureate degree programs in applied technology. The programs at South Texas College, Brazosport College and Midland College have put those regions of the state in a better position to meet local workforce needs, and their success suggests that other such programs can be rolled out in a gradual, thoughtful manner.

Texas colleges and universities are incredibly important to our state, and they’ll continue to produce the majority of baccalaureate degree recipients in Texas. But our state still has real workforce needs that are not being met — needs that will require us to find all alternative pathways to build and maintain an educated, skilled workforce for in-demand occupations that require a four-year degree. 

We look forward to working with the Legislature to prepare Texans to participate in today's competitive global economy.

Rodney Ellis

State senator, D-Houston

@RodneyEllis

Sarah Davis

State representative, R-West University Place

@SarahforHD134

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