The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light issues of inequity in many aspects of life, from food to medicine. It’s also brought up issues of equity in education, with students turning online in droves when the pandemic shuttered school doors for months.
That’s just one reason a move to allow community colleges expand degree offerings is back for discussion in the Legislature after 2020’s session was cut short. House Bill 2523 would allow community colleges across Arizona to offer four-year degrees in limited circumstances.
In densely populated urban centers such as Maricopa County, community colleges would only be allowed to offer 10% of its programs as baccalaureate degrees; the other 90% would have to remain two-year programs. The bill also would limit tuition rates for such degrees to 150% of the tuition of its shorter degree programs.
HB 2523 was approved in the Arizona House of Representatives on Feb. 22, with only three Democrats voting no. It now awaits discussion in the Arizona Senate.
Access is the biggest reason Rep. Leo Biasiucci, the House Majority Whip, supports the bill. For Rep. Biasiucci, a Republican from District 5 who represents rural La Paz and Mohave Counties, voting yes was a “no brainer.”
“I hate having a barrier in place,” he said. “For example, you have a single mom with two kids and she has a job, and there’s no way that she can drive to Phoenix to attend ASU. Why wouldn’t we allow people like that to better themselves and get the degree they’ve always been shooting for? For me, it’s all about access and making sure we can provide that to everybody we can.”
Rep. Biasiucci said he’s spoken with people at Mohave Community College in his district and they’re excited about the prospect of being able to offer four-year degrees to residents. Mohave County is consistently one of the lowest in the state for residents with a four-year degree. The lower cost and ability for students to live at home also is relevant with COVID-19 still not quite gone from the community.
“This is a game changer,” Mr. Biasiucci continued. “This is now providing the opportunity for these people that would never have that chance to get a four-year degree because of accessibility or cost. This opens the door and that’s what excites me.”
The Maricopa County Community College District, which is pushing for the bill to pass, said in a blog post its colleges “would offer four-year programs in high-demand areas where the current graduate supply is not meeting labor market demands for professions like law enforcement, teachers, or nurses.” The bill’s passage also would help to increase diversity and close the equity gap in Arizona’s workforce.
The post cites a 2020 update from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which reported that just one-third of community college students transfer to four-year colleges. In the country as a whole, less than 15% of all students who started their higher education at a community college complete their bachelor’s degree within six years.
Community colleges have the option to offer four-year degrees in 23 states, including California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.
Not everyone is sold. The bill was withdrawn from two different Senate committees after flying through the House - education and finance - and is now awaiting discussion in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
According to Democratic Sen. Martín Quezada, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, the bill was withdrawn because it didn’t have the votes to make it through the committee. He said he’s on the fence about it but wants to hear it discussed in committee and have several key questions addressed, namely whether it’s about access for students or about allowing community colleges to compete with large research universities.
“Initially, my gut reaction to [the bill] was why not? That sounds like a good idea,” he said. “As we’ve talked through the issues with the universities and community colleges, it’s gotten a lot more complicated.”
Those complications include existing partnerships universities have with community colleges and whether community colleges simply want to be able to compete with universities at a higher level. Plus, there’s what Sen. Quezada calls the “murky waters” of having 15 different counties with their own community college systems.
“The universities are all on the same page in terms of what programs they’re offering, how they coordinate with the community colleges, and how those programs are actually beneficial to the student,” Sen. Quezada said. “In the community college system, we’ve got 15 different counties, and therefore 15 different systems, and so the ability to coordinate the programs that they offer there would be greatly dispersed out over 15 different counties.”
Sen. Quezada, who spent two years at Glendale Community College before finishing his baccalaureate degree at ASU, said he is not a definitive no if the bill comes to a Senate vote.
He said he’s “all for it” to help rural students access more degree programs closer to home, but he wants to see community colleges commit to keeping tuition rates low long-term and perhaps limit the four-year degree programs they can offer in order to not tread too heavily on the universities’ toes.
He would also like to see the state invest more in K-12 education, which will lead to more student success when they reach college.
“If they could produce a quality degree that was much more affordable, then that might be something that could tip them over the edge and get the support that they need,” he said.