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Some Texas Educators Worry About Community Colleges Offering Four-Year Degrees

U.S. Department of Education

Earlier this summer, KERA reported on a new law that allows certain community colleges in Texas to offer four-year degrees in areas like nursing and early childhood education. Supporters say this will help fill shortages in those fields. But not everyone’s happy about the effort.

Four-year degrees in three areas  

When Anita Hufft first heard community colleges could also offer four-year degrees in nursing, she had concerns. Hufft is dean of the College of Nursing at Texas Woman’s University.

“My first feeling was this is not part of a community college mission,” Hufft said. “They don’t have the resources to do this. How can this be happening?”

Under the new Texas law, community colleges will be able to offer four-year degrees in three areas: nursing, applied science with a focus on early education and applied technology. Supporters say this could help increase the number of workers in those fields.

Schools that want to do this have to go through a lengthy accreditation process.

Three Texas community colleges already offer four-year degrees under a program the Legislature approved in 2003. The Legislature in 2015 approved Tyler Junior College’s plan to offer a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.

Hufft said four-year nursing degrees at community colleges could have unintended consequences – not just for those schools, but for four-year institutions like hers.

“I anticipate an increased competition for qualified faculty, an increased competition for clinical sites,” Hufft said, adding that costs could go up.

“As increased competition for faculty goes up, increased salaries to attract those faculty occur and that increases the cost of nursing education, which eventually is passed off to students and then eventually to patients that they care for,” Hufft said.

Today about 90 community colleges around the country grant four-year degrees. In Florida, 27 of the 28 community colleges do.

Meeting workforce demand

Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association, said a community college is the perfect setting for some students.

“The students who are in community colleges today are not exactly like the students from the beginning of community college days. We have working adults who are in the workforce, in nursing in particular, and they’re going back to school to get additional education.”

Hagan said universities concerned about community colleges moving into their arena shouldn’t worry.

“This is strictly about workforce issues, and I really believe that’s important for people to understand because these aren’t the kinds of degrees that most universities, with the exception of teacher education and nursing, are interested in having,” she said.

State education officials agree. Raymund Paredes is commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in Austin.

“Universities clearly don’t have the capacity to meet the demand in certain professional fields such as nursing,” Paredes said. “If we had every university in Texas working at capacity, they wouldn’t produce the number of nurses we need.”

Affordable options

Paredes also said students need more affordable options to pursue a post-secondary education, but he cautioned against thinking this will dramatically change the university landscape.

“There’s not likely to be a rush to offer bachelor degrees among community colleges, because first of all, the set-up costs, the start-up costs are expensive,” he said. “Secondly, accreditation is not simple.”

Hufft, with TWU’s nursing school, said addressing issues in nursing isn’t simple, either.

“The nursing shortage is a very, very complex issue,” she said. “It can’t be solved just by opening up more programs.”

Hufft said more needs to be done to help nurses, not just at the college level but in the workforce in order to improve job satisfaction and reduce turnover rates.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.