Are Four-Year Degrees at Michigan Community Colleges Constitutional?

Are Four-Year Degrees at Michigan Community Colleges Constitutional?
We examine the debate currently brewing in the Michigan legislature over whether to allow Michigan community colleges to offer four-year degrees. Are these degrees constitutional?
College students in Michigan hoping for another option in four-year degrees will have to wait a little longer. A bill to allow community colleges in Michigan to offer a handful of bachelor’s degrees has stalled out for the moment, while legislators determine the constitutionality of the proposal. Despite the recent roadblock, many Michigan lawmakers and educators are optimistic they will soon have an affordable option to offer students who are hindered by cost and location of four-year universities and colleges throughout the state.

Providing More Choices
 
According to an article at Central Michigan Life, a bill that would allow community colleges to offer select four-year degree programs passed through the State House last June. The bill then went to the Senate’s Committee on Education for review, where it is currently under discussion. The bill would allow for a handful of career-oriented degree programs to be offered at community colleges statewide, including programs in energy production, concrete technology, maritime technology, culinary arts and nursing.
 
“Some of the degrees are not offered by any of the universities in the state,” Matt Miller, public relations director for Mid Michigan Community College, told Central Michigan Life. “Some of the community colleges do offer associate degrees in a couple of these areas, but in order to get their bachelor’s, they have to go someplace else, so it would be helpful to our students to have this option.”
 
Most of the areas of study included on this list are already offered as two-year degrees at many of the Michigan community colleges. This means the cost for expanding the programs to four years would be relatively minimal, ensuring that tuition costs would not have to increase significantly for students who wanted to pursue the longer programs. For example, mLive.com reports that Jackson Community College already offers three years of study toward a nursing degree, so adding the fourth year would not add much to the cost of the program. The school would also like to provide bachelor’s degrees in culinary arts and energy production technology.
 
“Offering these degrees would not cost our taxpayers any more,” Daniel Phelan, president of JCC, told mLive.com. “We have the infrastructure and we have the equipment to do this,” Phelan added.
 
Offering Low-Cost Education Options
 
Yahoo News reports on figures from Michigan College Guide that shows a significant difference in cost between four-year and two-year schools in the state. According to the guide, private colleges in the state charge $20,000 to $30,000 annually for tuition alone. State universities run about $6,000 to $11,000 annually, while community colleges typically cost between $1,600 and $3,000 each year.
 
While community colleges could offer a low-cost option to the more expensive four-year schools, these institutions are not interested in becoming full-fledged universities to compete with other four-year school in the state.
 
“I do not want JCC to be a university,” Phelan told mLive.com. “What we are interested in is offering low-cost, career-oriented courses that are being sought by students. It’s about providing an educated workforce.”
 
Opposition to the Bill
 
While community colleges and many lawmakers are in favor of the bill, not everyone is on board with the idea of providing four-year degrees at two-year institutions. According to a second report at mLive.com, universities and four-year colleges are concerned about the duplication of bachelor’s degrees throughout the state if community colleges were allowed to join in those offerings. The president of Ferris State University, David Eisler, told mLive.com that while he opposes the offering of four-year degrees at community colleges, he would welcome additional partnerships between Ferris and two-year schools.
 
“We take educational partnerships very seriously,” Eisler told mLive.com, and then added, “If you take back this bill, and a community college wants to create a nursing program, we will partner with them and make it happen at any campus.”
 
Currently, Ferris has partnerships with 17 of the community colleges around Michigan.
 
Mike Boulus, president of the Council of State Universities of Michigan, agrees with Eisler’s concerns over duplication of programs. Boulus told Central Michigan Life, “All this does is bring unnecessary competition between universities and community colleges. All 15 public universities and the smaller private colleges are united against this bill.
 
Is it Constitutional?
 
The most recent concern about the bill was introduced to the Senate Education Committee last month. Government policy lawyer Leonard Wolfe told the committee that adding four-year degrees at community colleges could be a violation of the state’s constitution. According to Michigan’s constitution, community colleges and four-year institutions have entirely different modes of governance and methods of funding. That could mean that community colleges would have to change their structure to become universities, if they were to offer bachelor’s degrees on their campuses.
 
Community colleges in Michigan are governed by locally-elected boards and are subject to controls from the school Boards of Education. Funding comes in part from taxpayer dollars – through revenue from property taxes. On the other hand, state universities and private colleges are overseen by governor-appointed boards and they are not subject to controls from the Boards of Education. Their funding does not come from property taxes.
 
Currently, the Senate Education Committee is exploring the question of whether four-year degrees at community colleges would fit within the boundaries of the state constitution. While Wolfe is a highly respected professional in his field who raises valid points of constitutionality, some believe the law was left purposely vague to allow lawmakers to determine how to handle these issues. There is still optimism from many that the bill will eventually be passed by state congress.

Additional Resources [+]
New Bachelor's Degrees Offered at Community Colleges
New Bachelor's Degrees Offered at Community Colleges
The Real Dollar Value of an Associate Degree
The Real Dollar Value of an Associate Degree
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