Community January 6, 2015

Los Altos Hills’ Foothill College Aims To Offer 4-Year Degree Program

by Elena Kadvany/ Palo Alto Weekly

Foothill College is in the running to become one of the first California community colleges to offer a four-year bachelor’s degree as the result of a bill that took effect Jan. 1.

The bill, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in September, allows up to 15 community colleges to offer one baccalaureate degree in select vocational fields, as long as they meet a local workforce need and don’t compete with or duplicate any programs already offered at University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) campuses. In today’s world of increasingly expensive college degrees — for some prohibitively so — the bill aims to give more Californians access to higher education, and at a more affordable price.

Thirty-six community college districts, half of the entire state system, submitted applications in December for a range of career-focused degree programs, from Foothill’s dental hygiene to public safety, respiratory therapy, engineering technology and emergency services. Foothill chose dental hygiene after analyzing their own program and broader industry trends, said Andrea Hanstein, Foothill director of marketing and public relations.

Currently, only three private universities in California offer a four-year dental hygiene degree: the University of Pacific in Stockton, Loma Linda University and the University of Southern California. Annual tuition at those schools range from $40,000 to $48,000, Hanstein said, and Foothill’s program would cost approximately $10,5000 per year.

“Community colleges were founded on the premise that everyone deserves an opportunity for education,” Hanstein said. “To be able to have a program where we can increase the number of seats because we would be able to increase the number of students enrolled and then get them out there and employed – that’s our mission in a nutshell.”

Hanstein added that although the technical requirement to become a dental hygienist is a two-year degree, the American Dental Association (which endorsed Foothill’s application) has indicated it’s moving toward having a bachelor’s degree as the minimum entry-level requirement.

Foothill’s dental hygiene program is also extremely popular, with an average of about 100 students applying each year for the 24 spots available, said Dental Hygiene Program Director Phyllis Spragge.

Foothill’s students also often graduate with an excess of units — much more than the associate’s degree they earn requires, Spragge said.

“My students have to take the same board exams as students who graduate from the four-year dental hygiene programs,” she said, “so the scope of knowledge has to be equivalent, but the degree is not.”

Only one other state community college district applied for a dental hygiene program (State Center Community College District in Fresno), but Hanstein said Foothill was told that in theory, both could be selected since the two schools are located in very different markets. Spragge also worked with the four other Bay Area community colleges that currently offer a two-year dental hygiene degree so Foothill would be the only one in the region applying for the expanded program. These four schools — Santa Rosa Junior College, Diablo Valley College, Chabot College and Cabrillo College — are also interested in aligning their curriculum with Foothill’s if it is selected as a pilot campus.

“Even though we only take 24 students a year, we’re looking at this bachelor degree program to be larger in number and in scope,” Spragge said.

Members of the California Community College Chancellor’s Office staff, a member of the business and workforce community, representatives from CSU, UC and community college administrators, faculty, and staff from districts that did not apply to host a program are reviewing the applications and will make a recommendation to the system’s board of governors before their Jan. 20 meeting.

The board is expected to announce the 15 pilot colleges on Jan. 21. Considerations for selecting a district included geographic distribution of the pilot programs, diversity of pilot programs, ability of the district to establish a rigorous program in their proposed field and that the proposed program will meet an unaddressed local or statewide workforce need, according to a November press release from the Chancellor’s Office. Selected programs will also be accredited by Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).

The legislation sunsets after the 2022-23 school year, after which the legislature and governor may renew it pending two reviews of the pilot program, one in 2018 and another in 2022, according to the Chancellor’s Office.

Selected districts can start their programs as soon as this fall, or must offer the degree by the 2017-18 academic year. Hanstein said that Foothill’s program, if selected, would likely begin in the fall of 2016. Though Foothill applied as the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, it would only be offered at Foothill’s Los Altos campus. Foothill also requested as part of its application that graduates of its two-year dental hygiene program would be allowed to return to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree.

California is joining the 21 states that already allow their community colleges to offer four-year degrees. The state’s Chancellor’s Office said in the November release, “Further impetus for the measure comes from studies which show that California needs to produce 1 million more baccalaureate degree earners by 2025 to remain economically competitive in the coming decades. Community colleges are an efficient and economical way to help meet those needs due to their numerous locations throughout the state and modest tuition.”

Locally, this new offering would allow Foothill to finally match the degree it awards dental hygiene students to the work they do, Spragge said. There are bachelor’s completion programs that students who graduate with an associate degree can pursue, but that adds on further costs, both in time and money.

“It’s not that there is no alternative, but in some ways it’s an issue of fairness,” Spragge said. “It’s a degree that matches the level of preparation and work that they’ve done.”