Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday signed into law a bill to allow community college students to earn some bachelor’s degrees without attending another higher education institution.
All community colleges in the state can now offer four-year programs, but those in Maricopa and Pima counties have to complete a financial analysis and prove doing so would not duplicate existing programs at Arizona State University or the University of Arizona.
Public universities can respond to community colleges that seek to add programs, but the new law “does not allow a public university to prevent a community college from offering a baccalaureate degree.”
Ducey described Senate Bill 1453 as a “timely shift to reskill and upskill Arizona’s workforce to meet the needs of the growing economy and provide a pathway to economic prosperity.”
“Arizona’s community colleges play a critical role in supporting students of all ages and equipping our workforce with skills and resources,” the governor said in a released statement. “Arizona is a school choice state, and today’s action is school choice for higher education.”
Proposals to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees have continuously failed at the Legislature in past years. Its passage and signing into law marks a significant shift.
Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, who sponsored the bill, said the expansion of degree programs will benefit students of all ages, strengthen the state’s workforce and draw talented students and employers to Arizona.
The Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body overseeing the state’s public universities, opposed the bill, advocating instead for community college students to follow existing channels to obtain a bachelor’s degree.
The new law will affect only a small number of students attending community colleges at the start.
For the first four years a program is offered, bachelor’s degrees can’t be more than 5% of the total number of offered degrees. After that period, the number cannot exceed 10%.
College leaders praise Ducey’s action
Maricopa Community College District Interim Chancellor Steven Gonzales said four-year degrees likely will be offered in fields like health care, information technology and education.
“This should be a really exciting time for (high school) juniors and seniors,” Gonzales told The Arizona Republic. “This is a time in history where you have to have a skill set or education beyond the high school experience. Education has been the great equalizer in one’s changing of their social and economic condition.”
Gonzales said proposed community college investments in President Joe Biden’s $1.8 trillion American Families Plan would be a “game-changer” combined with the enactment of Senate Bill 1453.
The legislation takes effect later this year and Gonzales said students at Maricopa Community Colleges can start enrolling in four-year programs as early as fall 2023.
Other statements from local leaders focused on accessibility to education, state revenue growth and affordable prices for college completion.
Todd Haynie, president of Eastern Arizona College, said in the released statement the law “provides an accessible way for Arizona students to continue their education and build a brighter future for themselves and their loved ones.”
Haynie, as well as San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Terry Rambler, said enabling community colleges to offer four-year degrees opens doors for students of all ages and backgrounds while increasing the diversity of choices for pursuing education.
Yavapai College President Lisa Rhine said four-year degrees are likely to draw more students to schools where they can save money.
Universities opposed change
The Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s three public universities, opposed the bill. The board’s executive director said in March that the regents support expanding access to higher education but question whether community colleges offering four-year degrees was the most effective way to do that.
John Arnold, the board’s executive director, said more students should move through existing pathways between community colleges and the state’s universities.
In a letter to Ducey on May 3, ABOR Chair Larry E. Penley reiterated the board’s position. He said he was not convinced it would raise attainment, adding that additional “resources for targeted strategic initiatives will be required to change retention and graduation rates despite the four-year degree.”
Penley also said enrollment at community colleges is not falling because of the lack of four-year degrees. Rather than allow them to have bachelor’s programs, community colleges should work to increase graduation rates from associate degree and certificate programs, he said.
Gonzales, the interim chancellor in Maricopa County, said there are strong relationships between community colleges and universities in Arizona and he looks forward to seeing them continue and transform.
“However, where we differ in our interests and philosophy is that if we continue as we currently exist prior to the signing of this bill, we still have unmet need out there,” Gonzales said. “This is really an opportunity to complement their work, and it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement or as a competitive effort to what the universities do today.”