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For decades, the distinction between community colleges and four-year colleges has been clear: a student’s stay at community college is generally shorter, and admission is largely open, often oriented around job skills. But as both the demands on people’s lives and the nature of work have changed, that distinction is becoming less clear. More and more, community colleges are offering bachelor’s degrees – using the appeal of more online courses, competency-based progression and greater flexibility in hours to attract more people.

These programs tend to appeal to students who are in their late 20s or early 30s, on average. Many are working parents who, for a variety of reasons, find the prospect of transferring to a four-year college untenable, according to Angela Kersenbrock, president of the Community College Baccalaureate Association.

For them, she said, transferring and having to learn a new education management system, navigate a new financial aid office and administration, as well as a new campus, makes it challenging when they are juggling their education with other responsibilities, even though it may be necessary for them to earn more money or move up in their field.

They’re the highest risk students, she said, and “we’re asking them to do it twice. That doesn’t make sense.”

24 states have approved some community colleges’ plans to launch bachelor’s degree programs; at least seven have been approved in the past five years.

New research from the think tank New America shows that 24 states have approved at least some community colleges’ plans to launch bachelor’s degree programs; at least seven have been approved in the past five years.

State legislators have established different bounds these programs can operate within, but New America found that many of them are designed to meet the needs of the local workforce and avoid duplicating programs offered at nearby state colleges. The most common degrees being granted are in business, the health professions and education, and most are bachelor’s of applied science degrees, rather than bachelor’s of arts or sciences, which are more commonly offered at four-year colleges.

Ivy Love, a senior policy analyst at New America, said that while it may be easy to wonder if these programs needlessly duplicate the offerings of colleges and universities, the answer is no. They are serving different students in different ways, she said.

Related: Why so few students transferring from community college to university

But approval doesn’t necessarily mean immediate offerings to students. Some states, including Oregon, South Carolina and Missouri, approved community college bachelor’s programs in the last few years but have not begun offering any yet.

Kersenbrock suspects the coronavirus compounded existing challenges to getting these programs off the ground. Approval is only the first step, she said; colleges also have to secure funding, ensure their programs are accredited by the necessary organizations, prepare faculty, and stand up the resources and supports students will need to succeed in the programs.

Before taking over the Community College Baccalaureate Association, Kersenbrock spent 34 years in higher education, most recently at Seminole State College in Florida, helping to launch that community college’s first bachelor’s degree programs about a decade ago.

Some students at Seminole State want to transfer to a state university upon earning their associate degrees, which the college still supports. But others, many with full-time jobs and children to care for, found the idea of transferring daunting, at best, she said. In many cases, the students finished their two-year degrees and started working before realizing they needed a bachelor’s degree.

During the pandemic, Americans without bachelor’s degrees reported struggling with bills and losing health insurance at higher rates than those who had earned bachelor’s degrees or higher, according to Pew Research. Kersenbrock said this further illustrates the need to help more people earn bachelor’s degrees.

In Texas, where community colleges have been allowed to offer bachelor’s degree programs since 2003, South Texas College in the Rio Grande Valley had an increase in enrollment during the pandemic, said Emma Miller, who chairs the college’s organizational leadership bachelor’s degree program. She attributes it to the fact that the programs are entirely online, and to the influx of funding the college has had for student aid during the pandemic.

Related: More people with bachelor’s degrees go back to school to learn skilled trades

South Texas College first began offering a business bachelor’s degree in 2004, and has expanded to offer five programs.

Many of the organizational leadership students are already employed, including many by various law enforcement agencies, and aren’t able to move up without earning a bachelor’s degree, Miller said. Others, she said, go into positions within the city government or to human resources jobs.

The program is competency based, which Miller said attracts students interested in moving through their education at their own pace. Many come into the program with an associate degree and are able to work through the bachelor’s degree portion within one and a half to two years, she said.

“It’s something I believe every community college and every state should be examining — how can we complement what’s already there so that we create this educational opportunity for our communities to flourish?”

Sunaina Virendra, chair of the bachelor’s in applied management program, Skagit Valley College

Kersenbrock said that, regardless of their path to community college bachelor’s programs, for a lot of students, earning a bachelor’s degree can be significant for generations.

“I’ve had students who have said to me, ‘You know, I’m not getting this bachelor degree, for me, I’m getting it for my children, when they see that I can do it, then they’re going to do it’,” she said.

At Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington, changes prompted by the pandemic could make the bachelor’s degree programs more accessible in the future, said Sunaina Virendra, chair of the bachelor’s in applied management program.

A bachelor’s program dedicated to environmental conservation previously required students to come to campus most weekdays for labs, lectures and field trips. But it now uses a hybrid model that only requires students be on campus part-time, she said, giving them more flexibility to tend to jobs and family responsibilities. The applied management program went online during the pandemic and is still entirely online, with an optional weekly Zoom meeting, which most students do attend, Virendra said.

She said she may reinstate an infrequent on-campus meeting because she doesn’t want her students to lose the ability to present and interact with each other, but she said there’s value in learning to work in the online world, too. 

“If you think about the opportunities that would have been denied to a sector of society that is already underserved, you start to see the magic and what these programs can do, and what and the role that community colleges can play and making them happen,” Virendra said.

“It’s something I believe every community college and every state should be examining — how can we complement what’s already there so that we create this educational opportunity for our communities to flourish?”

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