Dr. Avis Proctor, Harper College president, and Bill Kelley, chair of the Harper College
Board of Trustees, recently wrote a guest opinion piece for the Daily Herald, closing out Community College Month in April and highlighting how Illinois community
colleges can continue to evolve to best serve their constituents:
April is Community College Month, and we're proud to celebrate our sector's contributions
to our state and to our nation's global competitiveness. It is also a time to explore
ways in which we continue to evolve to meet community needs and support our state's
strategic plan for higher education, "A Thriving Illinois."
Illinois ranks 49th in the net migration of college freshmen, with 47% of 2019 high
school graduates who went to four-year institutions enrolling at out-of-state colleges
and universities. As Illinois Community College Trustees Association Executive Director
Jim Reed recently wrote, it might be time to expand our horizons and enable community
colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees.
Community colleges have been an essential part of the American higher education system
for more than a century. The namesake of our institution, William Rainey Harper, was
instrumental in launching the community college movement. Harper was a visionary who
realized our unique institutions could provide affordable and accessible education
to a wider range of students who would otherwise be unable to pursue their academic
goals. His vision became reality: Community colleges serve 10.2 million students,
according to the American Association of Community Colleges.
For more than 30 years, a growing number of community colleges across the country
have offered baccalaureate degrees. More than 20 states can offer community college
baccalaureate degrees, including Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
This transformative movement has the potential to propel Illinois to achieve more
equitable outcomes in degree attainment.
According to the AACC, nearly half of all community college students today aspire
to earn a bachelor's degree. However, many of these students are unable to transfer
to a four-year institution due to financial, geographical or other barriers.
By offering baccalaureate degrees in select high-demand fields, community colleges
can help meet local needs and provide pathways to affordable and accessible four-year
degrees. This is especially important for low-income and first-generation college
students typically served by community colleges. Creating opportunities for degree
completion -- especially for place-bound students who may otherwise have no access
to a four-year university -- is vital for our communities. At Harper, these applied
bachelor degrees would build upon the strong partnerships we enjoy through our University
Center and programs like Engineering Pathways to University of Illinois.
Further, Illinois universities could grow their graduate programs through these expanded
pools of community college baccalaureate program graduates, as evidenced by the productive
working relationships in Florida and Washington state.
Most community college bachelor's degrees offered in other states are in applied programs,
created in a collaborative fashion with regional universities within state legislative
guidelines to address specific workforce needs. The top programs offered in other
states are in fields such as business, health care, education and applied technologies
to prepare students for workforce needs in their communities.
The community college baccalaureate addresses another significant barrier to bachelor
degree attainment: the transfer of credits to four-year institutions. While many four-year
schools have entered into articulation or transfer agreements, students still struggle
to keep the credits they earned at their community college. A 2017 Government Accountability
Office study found students lost an average of 43% of credits in the transfer to a
four-year university. Proposed legislation in Illinois, which the Senate approved
and is under review by the House, gives many community college students hope that
the major courses they've taken would be accepted for their bachelor degree programs
across the state, saving time, money and accelerating degree completion.
We understand expanding the role of community colleges into the bachelor's degree
arena is not without controversy and is sometimes described as mission creep. It is,
in fact, core to our mission to proactively respond to community needs as the community's
college. We feel collaborating with our university partners to design programs that
are needed at a regional level can create paths to a prosperous future for more Illinoisans.
As partners, community colleges and universities can increase equitable outcomes for
our students, strengthen our local communities and bolster economic development for
Together, let us work toward "a thriving Illinois."