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Community colleges win a round

The state’s community college system has taken the first step toward being able to offer bachelor’s degrees, winning Senate Education Committee approval Thursday of a bill that would allow them to do so in limited cases.

Metro State President Steve Jordan
Metro State President Steve Jordan

The bill advanced despite determined opposition by some of the state’s biggest university systems and questions by an influential committee member.

Senate Bill 13-165 would allow community colleges to offer up to seven bachelor’s degree programs in “technical, career and work force development” fields if approved by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. CCHE would have to consider factors including program need, accreditation and uniqueness of a program before granting approval.

Those limitations aren’t enough for some four-year institutions and systems. The University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Western State Colorado University, Colorado Mesa University and Fort Lewis College are formally opposing the bill.

The backstory to this issue, of course, is money. State support of higher education has dropped significantly in recent years, meaning colleges on average get only a quarter of their support from taxpayers. That has made colleges more entrepreneurial, and most have added new programs and services to attract tuition-paying students. Community colleges could draw more students with bachelor’s programs, and four-year schools could lose some potential students.

Democratic Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, home of CU’s flagship campus, also has questions about the bill, and he offered an amendment that would have significantly weakened it by esentially turning it into a study of the issue. It was defeated on a 2-7 vote. The bill passed a short time later on an 8-1 vote, with only Heath voting no.

Although most of the state’s four-year establishment opposes the bill, one of its strongest supporters is Metro State University President Steve Jordan, who testified Thursday.

He said allowing community colleges to offer limited bachelor’s degrees “serves a very important workforce need.” He added that expanding community college opportunities would help “place-bound” students who can’t move to Front Range campuses to complete degrees. “It’s about expanding opportunity to people in Sterling and Wray and Mancos and Trinidad,” Jordan said.

Nancy McCallin, president of the state community college system, pitched hard for the bill, noting that community colleges are closer to more communities (there are no institutions east of the Interstate 25 corridor and none in northwestern Colorado) and that “we have the infrastructure, we have the expertise in technical areas.”

She noted that in the last decade several four-year institutions have been upgraded to universities or have had graduate programs approved, and “all of those bills have had relatively little pushback.”

Heath kept trying to push his go-slow amendment , telling McCallin that he supported community colleges offering some four-year degrees but that the issue needs more study and review.

“With all due respect, we add programs in the four-year institutions all the time, yet the four-year programs are not required to go through this needs assessment” that Heath was proposing, McCallin replied.

Heath was tense throughout the hearing, repeatedly clenching his jaw as his listened to witnesses and other committee members.

Testifying against the bill were CSU Chancellor Mike Martin and top CU officials Pam Shockley of the Colorado Springs campus and Don Elliman of the Denver campus. They argued that “partnerships” between community colleges and four-year schools are a better way to go.

Elliman warned that low funding and “excess capacity” in the state higher education system make it unwise to expand the mission of community colleges.

It’s not unusual elsewhere for community colleges to offer four-year degrees. According to several witnesses, 21 states allow the practice. And the legislature a couple of years ago allowed Colorado Mountain College to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees.

Colorado Mountain College, which serves several counties in the central mountains that don’t have a four-year campus, is supported partly by local taxes and partly by state funds, so it isn’t a fully integrated part of the state system.

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