For over a year, the California Community College and the California State University systems have clashed over their respective roles.

The focus of the dispute: Who should be granting bachelor’s degrees? 

The Cal State Chancellor’s Office says many community colleges are stepping outside their bounds by proposing bachelor’s programs that duplicate what Cal State campuses already offer. Community colleges disagree.

The issue goes to the core missions of these higher education systems and the boundaries that the state set for them back in 1960. 

That’s when California’s Master Plan for Higher Education laid out the roles for each system. For the state’s community colleges, the plan says they were designed to award two-year associate degrees and provide career training, while the Cal State system would offer four-year bachelor’s and master’s degrees and the University of California system would prioritize research and doctoral programs.

Now a new law allows the community college system to approve up to 30 new bachelor’s degree programs each year at any one of the state’s 116 community colleges.  

The law, which went into effect last year, has a caveat: Community colleges can only offer bachelor’s degrees in unique fields that no other public four-year campus currently offers. It’s this caveat that is at the root of recent conflicts.

“I understand that CSUs (Cal State University campuses) and UCs may be feeling like community colleges are getting a larger allocation or are stepping into their lane,” said Laura Cantú, vice president of academic affairs for Los Angeles Mission College. “But there’s a reason why California decided that we should allow community colleges to offer some of the baccalaureates (bachelor’s degrees). It’s a way for us to really provide an onramp, a mechanism, for social mobility.” 

The Cal State Academic Senate has said it’s worried about losing money in the event that community colleges offer more bachelor’s degrees. 

In an email to CalMatters, Cal State spokesperson Amy Bentley-Smith said there are opportunities for partnership when duplication concerns arise. Some strategies are already in place, like guaranteed admission to Cal State campuses for community college students and joint degree programs where students attend a community college and a Cal State at the same time, often virtually. 

Meanwhile, the Cal State University Chancellor’s Office has thrown its support behind a proposed law authored by Sacramento Democrat Kevin McCarty. While the Cal State system offers a few Ph.D. programs, the bill would grant it the right to approve many more, as long as the programs “do not duplicate University of California doctoral degrees.”

As the bill winds through the statehouse, the UC system has asked for amendments to prevent Cal State campuses from duplicating what it already offers.  

Thousands of dollars saved

In a state with over 2.5 million students across the public college and university systems, only a few thousand community college students a year, at most, could benefit from the new bachelor’s degree program.

Still, the few community college students who have enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program on campus say that they are cheaper and more convenient than the nearest Cal State or UC option. A recent report from UCLA shows that’s especially the case for low-income students and students of color.

The Cal State system uses similar arguments to say that it should be allowed to award more doctorate degrees. 

Jessa Garcia received a bachelor’s degree in art and multimedia design in 2011, but after getting furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she wanted a more “stable” career and started looking into biology programs near her home in Oceanside, in north San Diego County.

She said she spoke to an admissions representative at Cal State San Marcos, the nearest public four-year university, who told her she was not eligible because she already had a degree. A spokesperson for Cal State San Marcos said the system will begin accepting students like Garcia in fall 2024 when regulations change.

MiraCosta College’s biomanufacturing program was the perfect solution, she said. “MiraCosta is close to me, like less than 10 minutes away,” she said. ”It’s a science-related degree, and it was accessible to someone who already holds a degree.” 

By the time she graduates in May, the bachelor’s degree will cost her a total of around $4,000 in tuition, in part because she was able to carry over credits from her earlier degree. Garcia said she already has her eyes set on a few internships where the starting wage is around $25 an hour. 

The average bachelor’s degree at a community college costs $10,560, which is “less than half the tuition at even the most affordable public universities,”  the Community College Chancellor’s Office states on its site. Community college leaders across the state say these local, low-cost bachelor’s degree programs are the only option for some students and that students who live near a Cal State campus may not get accepted there.

Last year, the Cal State system rejected between 3,000 and 3,500 eligible community college applicants, Bentley-Smith said.

“We’re an institution that has a high rate of students on federal financial aid,” said Don Miller, vice president of academic affairs at Rio Hondo College, which is located in southeastern Los Angeles County. “They live in the area. They tend to be more focused on the region.”  

LA Mission, Rio Hondo stall

This year, Rio Hondo College submitted an application to develop a bachelor’s degree program in popular electronic music, but it is fighting objections about duplication from San Francisco State, San Jose State, San Diego State, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State San Bernardino.

“The majority of our students are not the kind of students who are going to go to SF to get a degree,” he said.

At the same time, Los Angeles Mission College submitted an application to offer a bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing. Part of the logic for the application, said Cantú, was that MiraCosta College, Solano Community College and Moorpark College already had approval from the Cal State system to offer bachelor’s degrees in biomanufacturing as part of earlier application processes.

Further, Nathan Evans, a deputy vice chancellor for the Cal State system, had told one of Cantú’s colleagues in an email that there would be a “minimal amount of additional information” required when “similar proposals” had already been approved.

She submitted the application — more than 100 pages in total — in January. On May 31, she got an email notifying her that the Cal State Chancellor’s Office had flagged the application because some campuses said it duplicated their programs. 

While she’s excited about the potential, she said the experience has left her feeling “anxious” and “just a little disappointed,” especially for the potential students. “We talk about wanting to get our community members ready for these high-wage positions. We cannot train the pipeline fast enough.” 

Bentley-Smith said it would be “premature” to comment on Cantú’s proposal.

Tensions flare

There must be two rounds of applications every year, according to the law, but last year, the Community College Chancellor’s Office only ran one round of applications, which took more than 15 months. 

One of last year’s proposals, a bachelor’s degree in applied fire management from rural Feather River College, remains a sore point for Cal State. The Community College Chancellor’s Office approved the program and is moving ahead, even though Cal State leaders remain opposed.

Senate Education Committee Chairperson Josh Newman, a Brea Democrat, and Assembly Higher Education Chairperson Mike Fong, a Monterey Park Democrat, were concerned that this year’s applications would face the same obstacles as last year. In March, they issued a strongly worded letter to the Community College Chancellor’s Office, asking it to “pause” new bachelor’s degree applications until the two higher education systems could come to an agreement over duplication concerns. 

The Community College Chancellor’s Office never took the recommended “pause” and continued to accept applications from its campuses, only to hit the same challenges as before. Half of this year’s 14 applications have been approved, but the remaining seven are delayed over disagreements about duplication.

The state law requires that the Cal State system provide “supporting evidence” to explain any objection to a community college’s application and gives the two systems 30 days to come to a resolution over any duplication concerns. 

But months have passed since the Cal State Chancellor’s Office expressed concern over Cantú’s application and she still doesn’t have any evidence to explain why. In June, the Community College Chancellor’s Office sent Cantú a note, saying that the Cal State system had failed to provide supporting evidence after “repeated requests.” 

Still, both sides say that they are handling the application process correctly. 

The Cal State Chancellor’s Office says it is abiding by the spirit of the pause that state legislators asked for this spring. The Community College Chancellor’s Office says it is following the state law, which sets the strict timeline of two rounds of applications each year.  

Can they ‘move the process forward’?   

While there was no pause in applications, the two systems did agree to form a committee that would create new policies in the event of future disagreements. The committee has met three times but has yet to issue any new policy that would resolve future clashes around duplication. In a statement to CalMatters, Bentley-Smith said the committee would meet again in the fall.

“There is no dispute between the systems,” she said, pointing to the ongoing work of the committee. 

On July 17, the Community College Chancellor’s Office hired the Research and Planning Group for the California Community Colleges, an independent consulting firm, to evaluate the duplication concerns. Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications, said the contract was “internal” to the Community College Chancellor’s Office.

For the record: This story was updated to correct Jessa Garcia’s job status and the scope of the work done by the Research and Planning Group for the California Community Colleges. It was also updated to correct the number of community college students the Cal State system rejected for transfer.

Adam Echelman covers community colleges for CalMatters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.