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

Students at community colleges will soon be able to earn four-year degrees, as Gov. Jerry Brown just signed legislation to allow 15 college districts to take part in a pilot program for bachelor’s degrees, and San Mateo County’s community college district is striving to be one of those districts.

Senate Bill 850, authored by state Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego and signed by Brown Sunday, 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 eager to be a test district for the Community College Professional Development 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 really delighted,” said Ron Galatolo, chancellor of the San Mateo County Community College District. “Some of our learners in San Mateo County have been waiting for this for quite some time. San Mateo County has 750,000 residents with no four-year opportunity for college.”

It’s really important to give state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, credit for getting this going in 2009 and 2010, Galatolo said.

“Block was able to eventually pull this off,” he said. “It was Hill who really created the awareness for the need for bachelor’s degrees in the state of California.”

The state Chancellor’s Office, in consultation with University of California and California State University, will decide which districts are chosen to host programs, subject to California Community Colleges Board of Governors approval. Districts will be selected according to their ability and interest in establishing rigorous undergrad programs that confer degrees in high demand among regional employers. Achieving a geographical balance of districts to maximize student enrollment will be another factor. Galatolo has already sent a letter to the state chancellor’s office to express his interest in the program.

The San Mateo County 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 more than an 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 radiological technology degrees to separate schools in the district, but would have to choose one, said 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. Hill, a co-author of the bill, 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 previously 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 board.

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

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

“Thanks to the governor, Legislature and college educators who supported this bill, like Chancellor Constance Carroll of San Diego, the country’s largest system of higher education joins the ranks of community colleges in other states that offer four-year degrees,” Harris said in a prepared statement. “Employers in California seek candidates with advanced credentials and many struggle to fill positions in some of the fields that will be covered under the new program. This law will help us to meet California’s workforce needs, does not duplicate CSU or UC degree programs and gives more Californians access to affordable higher education that can enable them to obtain well-paying jobs.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office will conduct an interim evaluation of the bachelor’s degree program in 2018 and a final evaluation by July 2022.

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