The Four-Year Fight

TRAVERSE CITY – Northwestern Michigan College could be offering four-year degrees in nursing and maritime technology under legislation now awaiting a vote by the Michigan legislature.

The state's 28 community colleges are challenging four-year universities for the right to offer bachelor's degrees in four areas – nursing, culinary arts, maritime technology and concrete technology. If the community colleges succeed, they would join more than a dozen states across the country to offer such degrees.

"Bill 4837 is on the floor awaiting action," says Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. "The latest indication is that there could be a vote in August, but in an election year, you never know."

Under the legislation, only a handful of community colleges would offer the narrowly-focused programs, according to Hansen. "Only six or eight would do this," he says. "It would expand educational opportunities for a limited number of students who might never have this opportunity otherwise. Let's face it, the University of Michigan is not going to be offering a maritime technology program or a concrete technology program."

The effort is opposed by Michigan's 15 public universities, which say it's an example of the community colleges overstepping their educational roles.

Hansen disagrees. "This is an example of community colleges responding to workforce needs," he says. "Businesses are requesting that workers in these areas have four-year degrees, and community colleges are well-prepared to respond to these needs. It ought to be all about opening access to education to four-year degrees, not limiting access."

NMC President Tim Nelson, who testified in support of the bill during testimony in October, feels that community colleges have a responsibility to provide access to high quality higher education relevant to the needs of their regions; to provide highly adaptable, responsive programs to the needs of regional economies; and to offer affordable options for the attainment of higher education credentials that would not require citizens to leave their jobs, families or homes.

"Is the baccalaureate mission creep? I don't believe so," he says. "I believe it is in our mission to find appropriate delivery methods to meet the needs of our population. This is just such a case."

NMC has operated a successful University Center with 10 partners. However, in recent years the program has seen the exodus of Michigan State University, Michigan Technological University and the University of Michigan.

"They no longer offer on-site programming in Traverse City," explains Nelson. "Why? They are turning their direction elsewhere to focus on graduate education, research and technology transfer. Our Great Lakes Maritime Academy is a unique program. It is one of only six federally authorized academies in the United States… We can offer the (four-year) degree in less time for less money than it can be offered under its current transfer program with Ferris State University. "

If the legislation passes this year, it's uncertain how soon it would be implemented. But so far community colleges have won the right to offer four-year degrees in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association.

Michigan's 28 community colleges have about 475,000 mostly part-time students, while its public universities have about 300,000 full-time students. "Almost every one of the state's 28 community colleges is at record enrollments," says Hansen.

Four-year campuses want the community colleges to stick to their core mission. Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, has told media outlets that community colleges should stick with what they do best: offering post-high school remedial education, preparing students to enter four-year colleges and granting technical certificates and two-year degrees.

Two-year and four-year institutions are very different and have their own distinct mission, according to Boulus.

Community college advocates say university administrators fear lower-price competition, since community colleges keep costs lower by giving faculty heavier course loads than at research universities. They also employ large numbers of lowerpaid part-time faculty and a larger proportion of teachers without doctoral degrees.

Further dividing a shrinking state higher education budget also worries university leaders. The cash-strapped state has slashed financial aid to its public universities in recent years, and officials at four-year institutions are concerned that the state is not funding higher education to the degree they need. Officials from Ferris State University and Central Michigan University failed to respond to requests for comments on the legislation by deadline. BN