Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Feather River College was trying to quell flames, not fan them, when it proposed the creation of a new bachelor’s degree in applied fire management last year.
“I can walk out on my campus and look at the hill across the valley and see a burnt hilltop,” Kevin Trutna, president of the college, told Adam Echelman, our reporter covering community colleges at CalMatters, one of our partner newsrooms.
Yet when the 1,300-student community college decided to start the new program, it lit long simmering tensions between the Golden State’s higher education systems — and the result has implications for the whole state.
You can read Adam’s piece for the full details, but here is a quick recap: Last year, a new California law went into effect, allowing for the creation of as many as 30 new bachelor’s degree programs per year at any one of its 116 community colleges.
The biggest caveat? The programs can’t be “duplicative” of bachelor programs at the state’s universities — basically, they can’t compete with the 23 California State University (CSU) campuses and the 10 University of California (UC) systems.
That’s where the friction lies between Feather River and Cal State officials, who oppose the new program because they say it will compete with a similar degree at Cal Poly Humboldt. (Even though the Humboldt program doesn’t exist yet, and the two colleges are hundreds of miles apart, as Adam reported.)
It’s unlikely that the Feather River program, which plans to enroll 20 or so students, will significantly compete with Cal Poly Humboldt, which has projected its program could educate as many as 200 students per year.
Even if distance wasn’t a factor, the two programs would likely be pulling from different demographics, Ivy Love, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Education & Labor at New America, told me last week.
For example, a 2020 study of bachelor degree programs at local community colleges in Florida found that they primarily affected enrollment at for-profit universities, not public ones (like the UC and CSU systems.)
“The average community college bachelor’s degree student is in their early 30s,” Love says. “Even if you’re talking about a state university next door, you’re probably not competing for the same student.”
That makes Cal State’s fears of competition seem particularly esoteric, compared to the very real existential challenge Feather River faces, nestled in the evergreens of the Plumas National Forest, two hours North of Lake Tahoe.
Three-fourths of Plumas County is federal or state forest, part of a Northern California region where community colleges have had to play a particularly active role in fighting fires and sheltering both students and locals displaced by them.
“Folks who live around Feather River campus, have families there, are very rooted there, are highly unlikely to go far away to get that bachelor’s degree, and having more Californians who have skills in fire management seems valuable to the entire state,” Love says.
There are other critical issues at stake for community colleges in California, many of which serve unique, and geographically restricted, populations.
“This is a hands-on vocational degree, not something you can do remotely,” Trutna told Adam, rejecting the suggestion from a CSU associate vice chair that Feather River should create a joint degree program with Cal Poly Humboldt, which already struggles to house its current students, and is a five and a half hour drive away. “Our students just can’t move over there for two years.”
A number of community colleges across the country are trying to sort through similar ambiguity, Love says. That’s why New America recently announced it would launch three six-month learning communities for rural community colleges looking to add their own bachelor’s program.
The groups, through monthly virtual sessions from visiting speakers and folks from peer colleges, will work to help each rural college determine their specific goals.
One goal of the project is to create more community among rural institutions that otherwise might have to start from scratch each time they explore a new program or idea.
“Often when rural community college folks are interested in starting a bachelor’s degree, a lot of that can fall on one or two faculty members really committed to making that work,” Love says. “That can be lonely, and difficult to pull off while likely carrying a massive workload of their own.”
The discussions will include determining whether a bachelor’s degree is actually helpful for meeting the college’s goals. In particularly remote rural areas, a bachelor’s degree program at the local community college might be their only feasible option to get that type of education.
“If there is nobody in the area, nobody with institutional knowledge, what are your options?” Love says.
Many schools are exploring opportunities to expand their entrepreneurship and leadership programming, Love says, in hopes of building and sustaining local businesses to feed their economies. Just as critically, offering such bachelor’s degree programs could allow professionals to continue their education while still working at their jobs in the community, Love says.
Community colleges are often more accustomed to accommodating older, working students, with many offering night and weekend classes to meet their scheduling needs. Even ignoring financial and geographic constraints, what happens if a four-year university offers a course, but it’s not available at a time that fits with a rural person’s family or work obligations?
“If that program is not accessible to students who want to get that degree and are qualified … is that really duplication?” Love asks.
Other Rural Education Updates:
- No Degree? No Problem, the Times (and Biden) say. The Grey Lady recently wrote about the president’s attempts to bridge the educational divide we have often covered here at Open Campus, and how it is affecting his nascent campaign for re-election. His messaging — which includes saying Americans should have a chance at a great career “whether they go to college or not” — is particularly targeted toward rural Americans who are less likely to have a four-year degree and have been more likely to vote Republican over the last two decades.
- More on the FAFSA Farm Exemption Fight. I recently spoke with The Yonder Report about how an end to the family farm exemption could lead to as much as a five-fold increase in college costs for certain rural students, and how it impacts a population that already struggles to attend college despite having strong high school graduation rates.
- Texas could be particularly impacted. The state educates more rural students than any other, with nearly 700,000 rural students, according to Roz Brown, the producer of this piece co-published with the Public News Service.
- The Allure of a Rural Campus. This stirring video about West Virginia University, shot and edited by senior web producer Carmen Mendoza for the Chronicle of Higher Education, is well worth a watch.
This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.