In the past, earning a bachelor’s degree in California was exclusive to students attending a four-year university or college. But now, students have an option that would allow them to avoid the cost of attending these schools.
A new pilot program allowing four-year degrees at selected California community colleges will go into effect within the next two years. Students can complete the degrees for as little as $10,000 compared to two or three times as much at a traditional university. California will join 21 other states, including New York and Florida, that already allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees.
Out of the 112 community colleges in California, 34 of them applied to be a part of the pilot program. The application process was long and time consuming, but for 15 schools, it was worth it.
“We’ve been planning this for well over a year,” said Margie Fritch, dean of health sciences at San Diego Mesa College.
Mesa College became one of the 15 selected to start offering a bachelor’s degree after submitting a proposal for a health information management degree.
“We felt like we had written a very strong, competitive proposal,” Fritch said. “So I was very pleased, but I wasn’t totally surprised because I really thought we had knocked it out of the ballpark.”
MiraCosta College in Oceanside was selected as well. Their proposal is for a biomanufacturing degree, which will take effect in the fall of 2017.
“This is an historic moment not just for California’s community colleges, but also for MiraCosta College,” MiraCosta College President Sunny Cooke said in a press release.
Both the health information management and biomanufacturing degrees were chosen for uniqueness and job availability.
Michael Fino, chair of the biotechnology department at MiraCosta, who wrote the proposal and curriculum for the biomanufacturing degree, says the need for biomanufacturing graduates is large in San Diego.
Biomanufacturing involves the development of new products and therapeutics in the biotechnology industry and ensures that they are safe, effective and target a certain disease.
“Biomanufacturing really isn’t addressed at any Cal State Universities or Universities of California,” Fino said.
In a survey conducted by MiraCosta College last fall, 86 percent of the 133 current and former students polled expressed interest in the new biomanufacturing program.
MULTIMEDIA: Students at Mesa College discuss their experience in the health information department and their expectations for the new bachelor’s degree.
The bill signed into law
State Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, introduced Senate Bill 850, which established the baccalaureate degree pilot program, in January 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in September 2014 after it was approved unanimously by the California Senate. The bill was challenged initially because it contradicted the California Master Plan for Higher Education, which only allowed UCs and CSUs to offer bachelor’s degrees among state-funded colleges. The plan has since been expanded to include some two-year colleges on a limited basis.
The bill allows for 15 community colleges (no more than one in a district) to offer a single four-year bachelor’s degree that is not already offered at any University of California or California State University school.
Mesa College’s proposal was selected over the other schools in the San Diego Community College District, while Mira Costa is alone in their single-college district.
“In this program we have very highly qualified faculty that have the highest degrees you can in the field, which was another reason for selecting this, as well as knowing we could bring it to fruition pretty quickly,” Fritch said.
The bill stipulates that the bachelor’s degree programs must be in effect by the start of fall 2017, but classes may begin as soon as fall of 2015.
This bill was considered necessary by lawmakers because California needs to meet the economic demand for college graduates in certain professions. The CSU and UC systems alone will not be able to meet the demand in the near future.
California colleges will need to produce an additional one million bachelor’s degrees by 2025, according to Jack Beresford, the San Diego Community College District communications and public relations director.
“The CSUs and UCs are struggling to keep up. Community colleges have a successful track record and can help the state meet the demand,” Beresford said.
If current trends continue, only 35 percent of working-age adults will have a college degree in 2025, while the economy will require 41 percent of workers to have a degree, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Beresford said he hopes four-year degrees at community colleges will eventually be expanded through existing or new legislation to further help meet the demand.
“This is not a new idea. It has been proven to work in other states,” Beresford said.
Workforce development is key
The specific degrees were chosen because of high demand in the workforce.
With zero public institutions offering health information management degrees in California, community college officials approved two health information management degrees. In addition to Mesa College, the other degree will be offered at Shasta College in Redding.
“Typically, they’re not gonna approve two of the same types of programs, except that there are zero in California and we’re huge,” Fritch said.
Both the HIM and biomanufacturing degrees are intended to produce skilled workers in health and medical fields, which should be a boost locally.
“San Diego is one of the biggest medical hubs in the nation,“ Fritch said.
Some of the jobs in these specific fields are relatively new, so the need for workers has increased in recent years. The health information management sector has expanded and changed with advancements in technology.
“With the adoption of the electronic health record, these positions didn’t exist years ago because we didn’t have those kinds of systems. We had file systems,” Fritch said.
Biomanufacturing jobs are expanding, as well.
Research companies and institutions have moved into product development, where most of the biomanufacturing jobs are located, according to Fino.
The degree curriculum describes that the biomanufacturing degree “will prepare students for work within the biotechnology industry in the unique environment of biological production where the science thrives in partnership with quality and compliance.”
Health Information Management at Mesa College
Mesa College’s academic senate chose health information management over three other programs, according to Connie Renda, Mesa College health information technology director.
“We received letters of support from 10 major local hospitals and verbal endorsements from several government agencies, including the county jail and Navy Medical Center,” Renda said.
The HIM program will build on the existing health information technology two-year degree. Freshmen will enroll in the HIT program and after two years will be eligible to take the registered health information technician exam.
While the HIT program is a technical degree designed for jobs in coding, chart analysis and release of health information, the HIM program will focus on the management of those services provided in the health information department.
The prerequisites for the bachelor’s degree haven’t been worked out yet, but Dean Fritch said one will most likely be passing the Registered Health Information Technician exam (RHIT) after two years.
“The goal is to bring students in freshman year and have them do all four years with us,” Fritch said.
Mesa will accept 32 students into the program each fall using a cohort model. The cohort model means those 32 students will take every class together throughout their time as HIM majors.
Once students complete the upper division portion, they will be eligible to take the Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) exam.
Currently, there is only one HIM program in California at Loma Linda University in San Bernardino, a private university where tuition is $30,000 annually.
Fritch said the demand is already high to get into the program because of how much money students could save, making it extremely competitive.
“We’ve had so many calls because if you can get a baccalaureate degree for a little less than $10,500 in tuition, you’re going to go for a four-year degree,” Fritch said.
Biomanufacturing at MiraCosta College
Similar to the HIM degree at Mesa College, the biomanufacturing degree at MiraCosta College will build on the existing biotechnology associate’s degree.
“This is a chance to dig deeper into theory that we haven’t been able to previously,” Fino said.
The application process will begin in 2016, with students enrolling in the program starting in 2017.
Lower-division course work would cost $46 and upper-division course work would cost an additional $84 under the new program, with an estimated total cost of about $10,000 to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
“We plan on taking [the curriculum] to research companies in the area to make sure it meets their needs,” Fino said.
All about the students
Officials, administrators and teachers all say that the new degree programs are focused on serving the needs of the students.
“We’re hoping this will give students the potential to create greater opportunities down the road. It is helpful for new students and current students, who will be able to re-enroll in for the four-year degree,” Beresford said.
Fritch says community colleges can be a huge catalyst for change.
“We (community colleges) account for 85 percent of higher education. We need to stop competing and look at it from a student perspective,” Fritch said.