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Published: Thursday, 6/30/2011

Not 'junior' colleges

For years, the roles of community colleges -- sometimes called "junior colleges" -- were strictly defined. They offered vocational education and training, and a basic academic curriculum equivalent to what traditional college students might get during their first two years. Students who did well in community college usually moved on to four-year institutions to finish their degrees.

But in recent years, the lines have become blurred. In Michigan today, some cost-conscious students take basic courses at a community college, where tuition is usually lower, while they are enrolled in a four-year institution. Some community colleges have begun campaigning to offer bachelor's degrees as well, mainly in a few specialized fields such as nursing.

Traditional colleges and universities have opposed any expansion of the community-college mission. They don't want infringement on their turf and tuition dollars. There are also valid concerns that such expansion might lessen the value of a bachelor's degree, and erode distinctions between major research institutions and teaching schools.

However, some students in nursing, culinary arts, and certain technological fields need and want a higher degree, but cannot easily transfer to a four-year college for financial or geographical reasons. Michigan isn't the first state to face this dilemma.

Florida has authorized more than a dozen community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees. Community colleges in at least 16 other states are doing the same thing, mainly in high-tech fields.

Legislation approved last week by the Michigan House would allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in a few specialized areas: cement and maritime technology, energy production technology, and culinary arts. Degrees in nursing would be allowed if the Michigan Board of Nursing approves. This seems a reasonable approach that Ohio might also want to consider.

Taxpayers should be concerned about unnecessary duplication of educational services, especially in tough times. But it is even more important to our future to give anyone who seeks an education every reasonable opportunity to succeed.

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