Marta is a 41-year-old divorced mother of three who works as a dental assistant in San Luis Obispo County. She has an associate’s degree that she earned in her 20s from a local community college.
Marta also takes care of her mother, who is in declining health and requires more and more care. So while she wants to become a dental hygienist, her pursuit would require uprooting her family, leaving her job, and racking up significant debt. Although her family lives in San Luis Obispo County, it is more than 100 miles from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It’s the closest university, but it doesn’t offer such a program. The area’s community colleges remain mired in California’s political thicket, where community college bachelor’s degrees in career-technical programs continue to face opposition from the California State University System (CSU), a full seven years after 15 pilot programs launched after lengthy legislative negotiations . .
Marta is one of approximately 25 million adults in the US identified as bound in place, according to the American Council on Education (ACE) Center for Policy Research and Strategy (Hillman, Nicholas, & Weichman, 2016). In seeking greater social and economic mobility through higher education, many place-bound individuals encounter limited or no real options for affordable, quality postsecondary education programs. While online education has grown exponentially in the US, for a variety of reasons—including the necessary practicum and applied elements of career programs—such offerings simply aren’t feasible for some individuals and professions.
A brief survey of community college baccalaureate (CCB) students from the New America Foundation found, “Many CCB students are deeply rooted in their communities, often raising children and/or caring for aging parents, and want to stay local” (Meza & Love, 2022). And the ACE report: Educational deserts: The continuing meaning of “place” in the twenty-first centurynotes that “…geography and place are often overlooked” in discussions regarding the decision calculus of those considering enrollment in a postsecondary educational institution.” Despite increased opportunities for online educational programming, their analysis concludes that “.. .is no panacea for the structural inequities embedded in the current postsecondary system” (Hillman et al., 2016).
The ACE report details what has become useful identification education leaves — defined as geographical locations where there are no nearby colleges or universities or where one community college is the only public institution with broad access in the area. Roughly 6% to 12% of the US population lives in educational deserts, with a disproportionately high share of Native Americans (20%) and one in 10 African American/Black and Latino/Hispanic adults living in these geographic areas (Hillman et al., 2016). Despite this recognition, the place-bound student is often absent from meaningful equity efforts in higher education that seek to confront and overcome structural inequities affecting opportunities for low-income students and students of color. Most higher education demographic and related surveys do not include a check box for place-bound students.
The failure to adequately account for place-bound students in higher education public discourse, policymaking, and practice that seeks to address historic wealth inequalities and declining social and economic mobility in the US allows private, high-cost, for-profit providers to flood the market. .
The plight of the place-bound student and the existence of educational deserts offer another compelling equity-based argument for expanding community college bachelor’s degrees. According to the Community College Baccalaureate Association, about two dozen states offer a bachelor’s degree at their public colleges (CCBA, 2023). These degrees are often referred to as applied bachelor’s degrees for their overwhelming focus on specific professions, economic sectors, and localized labor shortages. However, in California and most states with well-established universities with strong ties to policymakers, wealthy and active alumni, and higher education structures built for a decidedly different era and political economy, establishing and promoting community college bachelor’s degrees is typically a Sisyphean task.
This is an unacceptable reality, given the publicly available evidence on the utility of a community college bachelor’s degree for underserved student populations—including place-bound students—labor market demand, the historic wealth gap, and the imperative of equity for low-income students and students of color (Meza & Love, 2022; Bragg & Harmon, 2022; Wright-Kim, 2022; Hoang, et. al., 2022). Public community colleges have ties to local and regional economies, faculty with advanced degrees in the liberal arts and sciences, and direct experience in industry. As such, their community mission, relative affordability, and their recognized connection to the place and geographic regions they serve and help make them uniquely positioned to assist students like Marta who are seeking educational and career opportunities to improve their lives and communities.
Lawrence A. Galizio is president and CEO of the Community College League of California.
The Roueche Center forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.