GUEST VIEW: Legislation could increase student access

By Daily News • Last Updated 2:23 pm on Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bob Ferrentino

A hot topic at our state Capitol is the debate over proposed legislation that would allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in select areas.

House Bill 4496 would authorize community colleges to confer baccalaureate degrees in only five applied and technical areas with demonstrated demand from employers and students: concrete technology, maritime technology, culinary arts, energy production technology and nursing. This legislation provides a new opportunity for community colleges to serve local citizens in their home communities without detracting from the excellent work being done at universities around the state.

Community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees is becoming more common than you might think. Twenty-one states currently grant community colleges the authority to confer baccalaureate degrees under certain circumstances. Similar legislation is pending in several other states. The concept has been researched and endorsed by the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, D.C., as a way to bring improved access to higher education in high-need fields.

In Michigan, both the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth and the former Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth supported the idea as a solution to meeting economic, employer or community needs in community colleges’ service regions.

The five areas of study included in this proposal require specialized training, and industry trends are shifting toward hiring graduates who possess higher level credentials, most often a bachelor’s degree. Employees who lack a bachelor’s degree, yet desire to remain employable in the respective industry, will also need to pursue the higher level degree.

Access to these higher-level curricula in Michigan in four of the five areas is restricted by a lack of baccalaureate programming. In nursing, four-year institutions are fully enrolled, as is the case with associate degree programs at community colleges, and students often have to wait for seats in the program. Allowing community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in these areas would address the unmet needs of students. Financial accessibility would be enhanced as well since costs will likely be lower those at the senior institutions.

Michigan faces the potential of critical workforce shortages as we continue to transition to a knowledge-based economy. Developing an increased pool of technology-trained and workplace-ready employees through the community college baccalaureate is a key component in economic development efforts in specific regions, occupations and industries.

For example, in the health-care industry, the movement of hospitals toward achieving Magnet status — a designation that measures the strength and quality of nursing at a facility — is dictating workforce requirements. According to the American Nurses’ Credentialing Center (ANCC), evidence indicates that hospitals that have achieved Magnet status have improved nurse to patient ratios and patient satisfaction is higher than in non-magnet hospitals. Completion of a bachelor’s degree in nursing is quickly becoming an industry standard and will help students be more employable as trends continue to shift.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to understand the needs of the regions we serve. We are prepared to deliver on the promise of quality, baccalaureate-level degrees in these specific areas. Certainly, not all of the state’s 28 community colleges will choose to offer these programs, but many who serve students with specific geographic and economic challenges will make baccalaureate programs available.

The principles of access, affordability and student success have always been at the core of the community college mission. That is true at Montcalm Community College and at all of our colleague institutions across the state.

Passing House Bill 4496 would be an affirmative step to increase the number of Michigan citizens with higher education credentials, ultimately contributing to the continued economic rebirth of the state.

Bob Ferrentino is the president of Montcalm Community College.

The opinions expressed in the Guest View do not necessarily represent the opinions of The Daily News.

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