The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

The 21st-century job market is demanding more four-year degrees and as a result, the some state legislators think it’s time for California community colleges to be able to add bachelor’s programs to meet this need.

The state Assembly’s Higher Education Committee passed Senate Bill 850, authored by state Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, on June 24. The bill, which still needs to make its way through Assembly Appropriations in early August and then to the Assembly floor for vote, would permit community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in limited circumstances through a pilot program with a maximum of 15 districts included. The local community college district is excited about the potential to participate in the program, which would need to commence no later than the 2017-18 academic year and students should complete their degrees by the 2022-23 school year.

“We’re very pleased with that,” said Barbara Christensen, director of community and government relations for the San Mateo County Community College District. “We will definitely petition. The ones we’re concentrating on right now that could be candidates for this are in allied health. We’d like to fill in a need for respiratory therapy and radiologic technology degrees.”

The district does already offer some four-year degree programs, including a nursing program at College of San Mateo that offers a registered nurse, RN degree. Cañada offers a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing through San Francisco State University. Allied health professions are now asking applicants to have beyond the associate’s degree. The difficulty with only being able to add one four-year degree is that the district would like to add both respiratory therapy and radiologic technology degrees to separate schools in the district, but would have to choose one, said Chancellor Ron Galatolo.

The bill states that California needs to produce 1 million more bachelor’s degrees than the state currently produces to remain economically competitive in the coming decades. There is demand for education beyond the associate degree level in specific academic disciplines that is not currently being met by California’s four-year public institutions, according to the bill. Each district can have one bachelor’s degree program through an accreditation body. Bill co-author state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has been trying to get legislation like this passed for a number of years. He notes it’s an opportunity for students and will help meet the workforce needs of the community.

“San Mateo County has a tremendous community college district,” he said. “From a local perspective, I see the challenges faced by students who want a four-year degree. They’ve got to go south, they’ve got to go east or they’ve got to north. If you’re working and you have limited time with the traffic congestion you’re faced with today, it’s almost an impossible task just to get to school when you need to for a four-year degree. There are many areas where the community colleges are capable of providing a baccalaureate degree without a great deal of effort.”

Still, Hill would like to see it open up even more than this bill is doing.

These baccalaureate programs will be limited and will not in any way detract from the community colleges’ traditional mission to advance California’s economic growth and global competitiveness through education, training and services that contribute to continuous workforce improvement, nor will these programs unnecessarily duplicate similar programs offered by nearby public four-year institutions, the bill states. The limitation of one program per district is definitely a drawback, said Tom Mohr, trustee on the San Mateo County Community College District.

“It’s a definite step forward,” he said. “There are some areas in the health field where it’s very important that more than baccalaureate be made possible by a community college. I don’t think it is sufficient.”

Under the legislation, districts would not be able to offer a bachelor’s degree already offered at California State University of the University of California.

On the statewide level, Brice W. Harris, California Community Colleges chancellor, expressed his support for the bill.

“I applaud the Assembly Higher Education Committee for approving this bill designed to address unmet workforce needs where career entry requirements have progressed beyond the associate degree level,” he said in a prepared statement. “The legislation would expand educational access and job training opportunities for thousands of Californians. Community colleges offering baccalaureate degrees under this bill would not duplicate those degrees that the University of California or California State University award.”

The California Community Colleges has 72 districts and 112 colleges serving 2.1 million students per year.