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Thinking Outside the Box

To respond effectively to changing times and employer demands, community colleges, like the old nursery rhyme, must be nimble and quick.

Some people think of community colleges as places that offer only two-year degrees. But while a two-year associate's degree is still commonplace, College of DuPage and its sister institutions offer everything from weekend and weeks-long continuing education courses, to semester-long certificate programs, to 3+1 and 2 + 2 programs—in which two or three years of community college courses plus one or two years of study with a partner college or university lead to a bachelor's degree.

But current Illinois state law prohibits one needed innovation: bachelor's degrees. In 22 other states, community colleges can offer them because of their ability to meet pressing job-training needs in particular fields at a far lower cost than other institutions.

Now there's a movement afoot in Illinois to allow community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in select applied technical and science fields.

Because the subject matter affects health services, job training and economic development, the community college bachelors could have a big impact on our community and residents of all ages.

COD President Dr. Robert L. Breuder has been a strong advocate of the community college bachelor's degree movement in Illinois. He helped initiate a study on the subject by the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents, authored articles for The Chicago Tribune and Huffington Post, and spoke with lawmakers about legislation.

Local residents, the College of DuPage Board of Trustees and community colleges statewide have shown strong support for the effort.

In a recent District 502 community needs survey, 82 percent of respondents said they consider it important or very important for COD to offer bachelor's degree in select fields where job opportunities exist.

Last May, COD board members unanimously approved a resolution in support of legislation that would allow Illinois community colleges to award Bachelor of Applied Technology and/or Bachelor of Applied Science degrees.

And in January, the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents voiced its support for the measure, saying, "Our study indicates many employers across the state need a workforce with a higher level of education. Community colleges are uniquely positioned with their strong industry and workforce relationships to provide these programs."

Thomas Choice, president of the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents and president of Kishwaukee College in Malta, said the bachelor's programs could be managed without any additional state funding. Rather, he said, the four-year degrees would be paid for by the variable tuition program already used by many community colleges for career and technical degrees.

While pushing for bachelor's degrees in a limited number of areas, Breuder and his fellow community college presidents stress that they're not trying to become universities.

Said the presidents' report: "Community colleges recognize the vital and irreplaceable role four-year universities play in our educational environment and, thus, are not interested in offering baccalaureate degrees in traditional university-driven fields such as liberal arts, humanities, business, teacher education and the like. The emphasis is solely on baccalaureate education in applied fields that are natural extensions of the workforce-ready programs already offered through community colleges."

Breuder said that offering baccalaureate degrees at two-year schools means moving into areas where there is a documented, unmet community need that clearly exists.

"We are here to offer opportunities for our students," Breuder said. "If schools such as College of DuPage have the faculty, resources, accreditation, licensure, buildings, desire and drive, there is no reason why we should stay out of this arena—especially at a time when more than ever before, parents and students are looking for a strong return on their investment in higher education."

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