Community Colleges Challenge Hierarchy with 4-Year Degrees

When LaKisha Coleman received her associate’s degree at Miami Dade Community College six years ago, her best bet for a bachelor’s degree seemed to be at the more expensive Florida International University.

But nowadays, Miami Dade College — the “Community” has been dropped — offers bachelor’s degrees in teaching and nursing and public safety management, and will soon add engineering technology, film production and others. Coleman returned to Miami Dade two years ago and is about to graduate with a degree in public safety management.

Coleman now recommends the college to family members. “It’s much cheaper, the teachers are good, you can do it in the evening while you work, and everyone’s very helpful,” she said.

As Coleman discovered, the line between community colleges and four-year universities is blurring.

Florida leads the way, with 14 community colleges authorized to offer bachelor’s degrees, and 12 already doing so. But nationwide, 17 states, including Nevada, Texas and Washington, have allowed community colleges to award associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, and in some, the community colleges have become four-year institutions. Other states are considering community college baccalaureates.

In most cases, the expanding community colleges argue that they are fulfilling a need, providing four-year degrees to working people who often lack the money or the time to travel to a university. But some of those universities are fighting back, saying the community colleges are involved in “mission creep” that may distract them from their traditional mission and lead to watered-down bachelor’s degrees.

Miami Dade’s president, Eduardo J. Padron, said the baccalaureate programs were part of his institution’s mission of serving the community.

“We supply the area’s nurses and the teachers, and we respond quickly to new work force needs in our community, training people for real jobs,” Padron said. “You won’t see us starting a B.A. in sociology. We’re offering degrees in things the universities don’t want to do.”

Community-college baccalaureates challenge the educational hierarchy’s boundaries between the research mission of universities, the teaching mission of colleges and open admissions for community colleges.

“The old categories that divided the world up between big-picture and applied-skills are out of date and dysfunctional,” said Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “So colleges and universities of all kinds — two-year, four-year, public and private — are feeling their way toward a synthesis.”