Cracking the code: Seven years ago, Melissa Curry was an unemployed single mom on the edge of crisis. Now she has a bachelor’s degree—and a job at Microsoft. Credit: Green River College

Sitting in her office at Microsoft headquarters, just outside Seattle, Melissa Curry still can’t believe her luck. Seven years ago, her life seemed to be headed for disaster. First, she was laid off from a good-paying job as a dealer at Great American Casino. Next, the state suspended her gaming license over outstanding speeding tickets. Suddenly, she was unemployed and barred from working in another casino. In her early thirties, raising a son on her own, and with no college degree, Curry knew she was in grave danger of falling into poverty.

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Like many adults seeking a path to a new career, Curry enrolled in a nearby community college, Green River College. Still, as a Native American woman whose parents didn’t go to college, the odds appeared to be against her. Fewer than 10 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer science are awarded to women of color, and fewer than 15 percent of students who enroll in community college go on to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years. And yet, four years later, Curry graduated from Green River with a bachelor’s in software development and a job lined up at Microsoft, where she is now a program manager. 

Curry worked hard to get where she is. But she also had the good fortune of living in one of only two states that make it easy to get a bachelor’s degree—a prerequisite to a good-paying job in the tech sector—from community college. A consistent finding in higher education research is that students are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree when they can do it all at one institution. But for the vast majority of people who start at community college, that’s not an option; the only way to complete a bachelor’s is by transferring to a four-year university. And it’s the transfer process that leaves many students behind. According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, less than a third of community college students who enrolled in 2010 transferred to a four-year institution, and of those, only 42 percent completed their degree within six years—just 13 percent of the original group. Transfer and graduation rates are especially low for African American, Native American, Hispanic, and low-income students, who are significantly more likely to attend community college than white middle- and higher-income students. Studies of community college transfer consistently show disproportionately low odds of earning a bachelor’s degree for minority students, especially African Americans and Hispanics, a phenomenon that researchers call the “racial transfer gap.”

Curry doubts that she would have continued her education if she could not have stayed at Green River. Figuring out where and how to transfer would have been too time consuming, and no option would have been as convenient. She also knew that she would lose the support of the faculty, advisers, and peers who helped her succeed during her first two years. “If I hadn’t been at Green River and been able to continue right on,” she says, “I would never have gotten a bachelor’s degree.” 

Better leveraging the country’s network of 941 public community colleges to offer baccalaureate programs like the one that moved Curry from unemployed single mom to a program manager at Microsoft may seem uncontroversial. But while twenty-five states technically permit community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees, Washington and Florida are the only ones that allow it to happen at scale, rather than in a narrow set of subjects and circumstances. As a result, only 121 community and technical colleges around the country allow students to complete a bachelor’s without transferring, and two-thirds of such graduates in 2017 came from programs in Florida and Washington. 

Why? Overwhelmingly, the opposition in other states comes from public four-year universities. Allowing more institutions to deliver bachelor’s degrees upends a status quo that gives state universities a monopoly on public baccalaureate education and supplies them with a steady stream of transfer students. As a result, when states consider following the example of Washington and Florida, public universities lobby hard against it. 

But data from both states should dispel concerns that the programs are siphoning off students who would otherwise enroll in a public university. Recent analysis from Washington shows that the graduates look more like traditional community college students: they are older than university students, with an average age of thirty-two, and are more racially and economically diverse. The same is true in Florida, where state department of education data indicates that three out of four students enrolled in community college bachelor’s programs are from underserved populations. In other words, many students who get a bachelor’s degree from a community college wouldn’t otherwise have gotten it from a public university; they just wouldn’t have gotten one at all.

More research is needed, but the early evidence suggests that expanding baccalaureate programs at community colleges could go a long way toward increasing the share of Americans with degrees and addressing racial and class disparities. Study after study points to the economic and social value of bachelor’s degrees and to the vulnerability of Americans without them. Since the Great Recession, almost 75 percent of new jobs have gone to bachelor’s degree holders. Creating more opportunities for Americans to experience those benefits could be as simple as letting more college students finish where they start. 

The push to let Washington’s community and technology colleges grant bachelor’s degrees began in 2001, as part of a broader effort to increase degree attainment across the state. College leaders were particularly concerned about the lack of transfer opportunities for students completing “associate of applied science” (AAS) programs. These occupationally focused degrees, popular with many adult and first-generation students, are designed to help students move directly into the labor market, not into a four-year university. But as the educational requirements of jobs increased, graduates of AAS programs needed more ways to advance their careers. In 2005, the Washington legislature authorized four pilot “bachelor’s of applied science” programs that would provide a seamless pathway for AAS graduates to move onto a career-focused bachelor’s degree without needing to transfer. 

In 2010, the pilots were deemed successful enough that the state extended them and created a process for approving additional programs in fields with unmet student or labor market demand. The lion’s share of programs are in health care, business, and information technology. Today, twenty-eight of the system’s thirty-four colleges offer or are approved and getting ready to offer bachelor’s degrees, with 110 programs in total. 

While the largest baccalaureate programs in Washington are in the Seattle area, a growing number are offered in more rural parts of the state, often in fields like education, health care, and business, which are critical to sustaining local economies. Centralia College, for example, a ninety-minute drive from Seattle, feels a world away from the fast-paced, youthful, and crowded urban center. Like many small communities, Centralia is struggling to recruit and retain teachers. And while the town is home to the state’s longest continuously operating community college, there are no four-year institutions there. Residents interested in becoming a teacher used to have three primary options: they could enroll in nearby St. Martin’s University, a private, Catholic school with an annual tuition of over $38,000; go to the University of Washington–Tacoma, which is more affordable but requires an hour-plus commute each way; or sign up for a fully online program. 

At the urging of the county school superintendents, Centralia College sought approval from the state to offer a bachelor’s of applied science in K–8 education and special education. The request was approved in 2015, and the college began accepting applications in the winter of 2017. The response exceeded expectations, confirming what many in the community had suspected: there was a pool of local adults interested in becoming teachers but, for a variety of reasons, not enrolling (or not completing) the programs at St. Martin’s, UW-Tacoma, or online. 

Reluctant to turn anyone away, the college created two cohorts, for a total of fifty-three students; this June, forty-five of the original students graduated on time.

 “The program will give us a stable pipeline of teachers who are from the community and plan to stay here” said Connie Smejkal, the dean of instruction overseeing the program. 

The biggest barrier to spreading this model to other states is the resistance of existing public four-year colleges. A recent survey revealed that 70 percent of public university presidents consider efforts by community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees “mission creep.” A majority also rejected the notion that community colleges are well positioned to increase access to students for whom public baccalaureates are inaccessible due to cost or geography. 

Underlying this skepticism, however, are more prosaic concerns around enrollments and funding. When states consider plans for letting community colleges award bachelor’s degrees, public universities are first in line to try to stop them. When universities are unable to fend off authorizing legislation, they often use their influence to limit the types of degrees that can be offered to niche fields or require extensive pilot projects, or both. In Michigan, for example, community colleges were only able to secure authority to award bachelor’s degrees in four fields: concrete technology, maritime studies, energy production, and culinary arts. In California, where public universities are over-enrolled and two-to-four-year transfer processes are notoriously weak, the community college system was only able to eke out authority for fifteen pilot baccalaureate programs, many in narrow fields like “Equine and Ranch Management.” 

To be clear, blurring the lines between community colleges and universities is not without risks. Community college leaders themselves worry that expanding into the baccalaureate market might distract from their historic focus serving students otherwise unable to attend four-year universities, like low-income students, underprepared students, and adult learners. Another legitimate concern is that the emphasis on affordability might come at the expense of quality. In Washington, the colleges are required to charge about the same for any upper-division courses as a student would pay at a public university, making the overall cost of the bachelor’s degree the same regardless of whether students transfer. But in states without similar safeguards, including Florida, community college baccalaureates could undercut university offerings even as state legislatures continue to disinvest from higher education. 

The case of Washington, however, suggests that community college bachelor’s programs need not undermine the other goals of public higher education. Data collected by the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges on student demographics and outcomes strongly suggests that the programs are adding to the state’s overall degree attainment, rather than simply rearranging the existing student population. More than 3,000 students have completed baccalaureate degree programs at community colleges in Washington since 2010, and they are more economically diverse than students in associate’s degree programs, who, in turn, are more diverse than undergraduates in public universities. At an average of thirty-two years old, community college applied baccalaureate students are also significantly older than the average transfer student. The programs appear to be serving a population whose needs would otherwise be unmet. 

If we use post-graduation outcomes as a proxy for degree quality, there is also good news. Students in fields like health care and education tend to do well right out of the gate, likely because they are using the degrees to advance in their existing careers. Graduates of business programs take longer to make good money, suggesting that students are embarking on new careers. In short, applied baccalaureate graduates appear to enjoy many of the same economic and social benefits that come with a traditional college degree. 

Melissa Curry’s son started his freshman year at Washington State this fall, where he also plans to study computer science. Curry earns too much for him to qualify for financial aid, but she has no complaints. “That’s how it’s supposed to work,” she says. 

While that might be true, it too rarely does. The overwhelming majority of students who start at a community college with the intention of completing a bachelor’s degree don’t, putting them at a severe disadvantage in today’s economy. Curry is doing her part to change that. Green River’s first graduate to break into Microsoft has made sure she wasn’t the last, keeping an eye out for internship opportunities and job openings. So far, four more Green River graduates have made the improbable journey from first-generation community college student to a full-time job at Microsoft.

The challenge of getting more students to the finish line of a bachelor’s degree has vexed higher education for decades. The two-plus-two transfer models have improved but still leave more students behind than not. Online universities continue to enroll millions of students, but graduate far fewer. Bachelor’s programs like those offered through Washington’s community colleges will never achieve the scale that universities can provide, particularly online. But when they are well designed and supported through smart policy, they are likely to graduate a much higher share of the students who enroll in them and set them up for success in their local economy. 

And if that’s not the mission of the community college, what is?

Mary Alice McCarthy and Debra Bragg

Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America. Debra Bragg is the director of the University of Washington’s Community College Research Initiative.