Four-year programs at community colleges face ‘underground’ opposition

Sinclair supports allowing community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

Sinclair Community College wants to offer four-year degrees, but its president says the plan is getting push-back from an influential lobby: traditional four-year universities.

“Universities are fearful, they’re afraid and we wish they weren’t,” Sinclair President Steve Johnson said.

House Bill 474, which would allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees, is expected to die in the Ohio House before the end of the year, said Tom Walsh, vice president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

Walsh agreed with Johnson that there has been resistance from universities and says that stance is “understandable.”

Bruce Johnson, president of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, could not be reached for comment. But in testimony to a Statehouse committee in May, he referred to the concept as “troubling.”

“The last thing we want is a new state policy resulting in community colleges moving away from what it is they do well, which is standing up technical or applied degree programs nimbly and quickly in response to the workforce needs of the community or region,” Bruce Johnson told state representatives.

Stephen Mockabee, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati representing the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors, told state representatives they should “re-examine” the proposal.

“The state should allow community colleges to continue to do what they do well, and allow universities to do what they do well,” Mockabee told representatives in May.

‘More competition’

Efforts to prevent community colleges from being able to offer bachelor’s degrees has been “underground” but effective, Johnson said. The fear, he said, stems from the thought that community colleges would compete more with universities, such as Wright State or the University of Dayton.

“What we don’t want is more competition,” said Sean Creighton, president of the Southwestern Ohio Council of Higher Education.

Creighton said he supports the concept of two-year schools awarding four-year degrees but said they should not overlap with ones offered at universities in close proximity.

There are 23 two-year community colleges in Ohio and 14 traditional public and private universities. Combined they enroll just under 600,000 students each year.

The idea that community colleges would offer bachelor’s degrees is really about creating “more educational opportunities for students,” that are more affordable, Creighton said.

Sinclair is not interested in offering degrees already offered by Wright State or UD, Johnson said.

Johnson said he helped establish bachelor’s degree programs at St. Petersburg College in Florida before coming to Sinclair. Florida has seen a surge in bachelor’s degree programs at community colleges, with more than 175 offered, at least 20 of which duplicate university programs, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Seeking collaboration

House Bill 474 does not prohibit community colleges from starting a program offered at a nearby university. The Chancellor of Ohio Higher Education can veto a program already offered in the region though, according to a summary of the bill.

Johnson pointed to agreements Sinclair has with both universities as evidence of aspirations to collaborate rather than compete.

The UD Sinclair Academy and Wright State’s Double Degree Program act as pipelines for students who want to obtain a four-year degree but take classes at the community college for two years.

UD President Eric Spina said that regardless of what type of degrees Sinclair offers, he expects the relationship between the two schools to continue and grow.

“I don’t envision Sinclair and UD becoming competitors,” Spina said. “I expect we’re going to do more together and not less.”

Officials from Wright State declined to comment for this story, spokesman Seth Bauguess said.

Along with purported push-back from universities, Sinclair’s community college counterparts are less enthusiastic in pursuing four-year degrees.

While Sinclair is interested in eventually offering 10 degrees, Clark State in Springfield has explored offering just one bachelor’s degree in manufacturing technology management and Cincinnati State is considering one in surveying/ civil engineering and one in culinary sciences. An official from Edison Community College in Piqua said the school has no interest in expanding.

“We currently have no plans to offer four-year degrees,” said Edison spokesperson Andrea Francis. “Our current focus is on providing a quality, two-year education.”

At the statehouse

If passed, House Bill 474 would allow community colleges to offer up to 10 four-year degree programs statewide, said Jeff Robinson, communications director for the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

With only weeks left in this legislative session, Walsh expects a similar bill to be introduced next year. The bill’s original sponsor, Tim Brown, R-Bowling Green, no longer is in the legislature and declined to comment.

If the bill dies, it will not be the first time the proposal has floundered. An earlier version, House Bill 64, died in the state Senate, Walsh said.

“It’s not surprising,” Walsh said. “This is the way it’s played out in other states.”

Bachelor’s degrees are offered at community colleges in 23 states and most of those states made several attempts to get programs going, Walsh and Sinclair spokesman Adam Murka said.

“It’s not unusual that it would take one or two or more iterations of this to get it started,” Murka said.

Three of Ohio’s five neighboring states — Indiana, Michigan and West Virginia — allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees, but not all community colleges in those states offer such degrees.

Ivy Tech, the largest community college in Indiana, has decided against it.

“In Indiana, it is not a mission of the community college to offer four-year degree programs,” said Kelsey Batten, assistant vice president for marketing and communications at Ivy Tech.

Sinclair’s stance

Although Edison is not pursuing bachelor’s degree programs and Clark State is looking at just one, Sinclair officials have expressed interest in up to 10. The top two choices officials said they would pursue would be four-year degrees in aviation and unmanned aerial systems.

The programs rank at the top of Sinclair’s list because of their job growth potential and because of the assets Sinclair has already invested. It makes more sense, Murka said, for Sinclair to build on programs it has, such as UAS, than for other schools to start from scratch.

Sinclair is also eying baccalaureate programs in health sciences, industrial automation, automotive technology, biotechnology, culinary arts management, dental hygiene, first responder management and legal studies, said Murka.

The degree programs Sinclair is interested in would “leverage” the college’s relationships with area employers as well as Sinclair’s facilities, faculty and equipment, Murka said.

Sinclair’s faculty is qualified and has the same credentials as university professors, Johnson said. Some are already teaching students with bachelor’s degrees or higher.

“When we have phenomenal facilities, right here, we have phenomenal faculty, we can just do it right here,” Johnson said.

Degree attainment

Ohio is lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to college degree attainment. About 18.7 percent of U.S. citizens have a bachelor’s degree while just 16.6 percent of Ohioans have one, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In order to keep up with workforce demand, Johnson said Ohio needs to increase the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded.

He also said Sinclair students and Montgomery County residents want four-year options at Sinclair.

Of 714 Sinclair students surveyed last year, 53 percent said they would enroll in a four-year program at the community college and 73 percent said Sinclair should offer bachelor’s degree programs.

Christopher Hoaglin, a Sinclair student studying electrical engineering, said he’d like the community college to offer bachelor’s degrees because “it’s hard enough to transfer to a four-year school.”

“It’s a nice program here,” Hoalgin said. “I like Sinclair because it’s more personal.”

Last month, Johnson tweeted a poll of county voters that showed 69 percent of the 405 surveyed “strongly favor” four-year programs at Sinclair.

“The people of OH want 4 yr degrees at community colleges. These are the people who vote and pay the bills for government. We should listen!” Johnson tweeted.

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