Michigan Community Colleges Offer Bachelor’s Degrees to Increase Degree Attainment and Close Skills Gap

In Michigan, community colleges are giving students the opportunity to earn Bachelor’s degrees on campuses close to home.

We have known for some time now that community colleges can quickly and effectively prepare students for the twenty-first century workforce through providing two-year degrees and certifications. However, sometimes a bachelor’s degree is necessary to meet the qualifications for a position in an in-demand field.

In 2004, then Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm announced that she would create a commission on higher education’s role in the state’s economy. At the time of the report, fewer than 22 percent of Michigan adults had attained bachelor’s or advanced degrees. The report looked at ways to double the number of Michigan college graduates within the next ten years. With this goal in mind, the report recommended giving community colleges the ability to confer bachelor’s degrees. The report, nicknamed the Cherry report after then Lieutenant Governor and head of the commission John D. Cherry, catalyzed the effort to change a Michigan statute that prohibited community colleges from awarding bachelor’s degrees.

After the Cherry report was published, President of the Michigan Community College Association, Michael Hansen, began leading the push to let community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees. The first attempt was a bill that simply would have changed the statutory language to say that community colleges ‘may,’ instead of ‘may not’ offer bachelor’s degrees. “Our first attempt was too broad,” said Hansen. Although he disagrees with their criticism that the initiative stepped on toes, four-year public and private institutions pushed back, and the bill did not pass. “We tried again, focusing on areas where community colleges could fill a niche, and a bill was introduced that would give us the ability to confer baccalaureate degrees in culinary arts, maritime technology, concrete technology, energy production, and nursing,” said Hansen. The bill passed with nursing struck from the list. 

In December 2012, Michigan became the twenty-first state to allow its community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees. Hansen doesn’t see this, or even proposed expanded legislation, as encroaching on the offerings of four-year institutions. “I don’t see community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees in subjects like history. I see us offering degrees to meet workforce demand.” Some of the bachelor’s programs offered at community colleges are not available at in-state four-year institutions. Another bill was later introduced to expand community college bachelor’s degree offerings to include nursing, information technology, and wastewater treatment technology among others, but it did not pass. Hansen acknowledges that there is still opposition, but is optimistic that the increasing demand for skilled labor will encourage the state legislature to rethink the proposal.

According to Hansen, the bottom line is that Michigan community colleges do not want to replace four-year institutions. They want to offer degrees to meet in-state workforce demand. Residents need a local, affordable option where they can earn a degree or credential that they can use to improve their lives, and subsequently the state economy. Through expanding their offerings, community colleges can fill this niche in Michigan, and across the country.

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