A bill that would allow community colleges to offer four-year programs is gaining traction in the Oregon State Legislature. Senate Bill 3 gives schools the option of providing specialized baccalaureate programs to students, an opportunity that is currently illegal in the state of Oregon, and would greatly affect institutions such as Chemeketa Community College in Salem, OR.
The legislation, which is sponsored by Senate President Peter Courtney along with Senators Girod, Heard, Thomsen and Wagner, passed in a nearly unanimous vote in the State Senate on Feb. 19. The bill currently sits in the House Committee on Education and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. SB 3 also goes hand in hand with SB 4, which allows the merging of a community college and a public university to create one larger institution of higher education and SB 265, which provides funding for Career and Technical Education grant programs.
According to Jim Eustrom, Vice President of Instruction and Student Services at Chemeketa, the bill would have a positive impact on both Chemeketa and the greater Salem community. Out of the 30,000 students enrolled at the school, nearly 98 percent come from the Marion-Polk County area. Chemeketa is also well known for its nursing program, and if the bill passes, will expand to allow students to obtain their Bachelor’s in nursing without leaving Salem.
“We obviously know that there’s a need for health care providers throughout Oregon and throughout the United States,” said Eustrom. “Another thing that there’s a need for is an early childhood education program. All Head Start teachers now need to have Bachelor’s, which is a new requirement in the last few years, so there is a desire to have that.”
While Chemeketa is one of several community colleges in the Willamette Valley, more rural areas of Oregon have limited opportunities for post-secondary education. According to President Ross Tomlin, Tillamook Bay Community College (TBCC) is the only community college in its region and one of the smallest in the state, with only about 2,000 students. Tomlin explained that SB 3 would be a huge benefit for TBCC students, many of whom wouldn’t go on to pursue a Bachelor’s degree otherwise.
“Many of our students are place-bound, and a lot of them don’t have the option to go to Portland or Salem for college,” he said. “ Most like it here and would prefer to stay here.”
Tomlin and Eustrom both emphasized that the baccalaureate programs would be niche opportunities, meant to provide career technical educations without forcing students to transfer, and only one or two programs would be established at each school. While Chemeketa’s focuses are nursing and early childhood education, TBCC would likely implement four-year programs in criminal justice and business. According to a unanimous letter of support from the Oregon Community College Association, other possible programs would include dental hygiene, information technology and data analytics.
There is also little concern that the bill would adversely affect already established public and private universities.
“I think that the programs would be so specific that we wouldn’t see a whole bunch of [new] students coming to community colleges. We work so closely with Western Oregon University, Oregon State University and Portland State University that I don’t think we’d be treading on each other’s toes,” said Eustrom.
While the bill has received heavy support from community colleges and individuals across Oregon, there are also concerns that the legislation would cause lawmakers to lose focus of the financial need of all higher education institutions.
In a letter to the Senate Committee of Education, Western Oregon University’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Strategic Initiatives Dave McDonald testified that the real issue is poor funding for Oregon colleges overall.
“Oregon has under-funded education so severely that we now rank below the national and west coast averages on every meaningful measure of higher education funding,” McDonald wrote. “This bill does not address the fundamental and critical issue of funding higher education. Nor does it guarantee that Oregon will increase of the number of students who will earn a Bachelor’s degree. If affordability is a high policy priority, then focus and funding should go to support Oregon higher education and its students.”
Although he is in support of the bill, Eustrom recognizes these concerns and often collaborates with McDonald and administrators from other public universities to address similar issues.
“State schools need money too,” he said. “I get that.”
While SB 3 has not been scheduled for a hearing in the House of Representatives, chances of it passing are high. Courtney, who represents Salem in the State Senate, has also provided testimony in support.
“One size does not fit all when it comes to education. If we want to help students reach their full potential, and allow society to benefit from their potential, then we need to eliminate obstacles and create multiple ways for students to complete their educational goals,” he wrote.
The full text of SB 3, along with all supplemental documents and summaries, can be found on the Oregon Legislative Information System (OLIS)’s website.