Oregon community colleges hope to pierce the ‘paper ceiling’ with new four-year degrees

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Feb. 16, 2023 6 p.m.

Chemeketa Community College is the first to offer an ‘applied’ baccalaureate this fall. Legislators are already considering an expansion to what the colleges can offer.

For people who have hit a dead end in their jobs, it can be hard to see the next step forward — especially if advancing into a higher position is restricted by college education level. Some community colleges in Oregon are hoping to bridge that gap for workers.


For decades, Oregon community colleges have only been allowed to offer two-year degrees and other shorter-term certificates. That’s changing thanks to a bill the Oregon Legislature passed back in 2019, which colleges are starting to act on as soon as this fall. The 2019 law allows community colleges across the state to award applied baccalaureate degrees for students — four-year degrees focused on specific, hands-on skills. It also means a big change for universities, which cautiously support the narrowly-tailored new programs, but are wary of proposals to take that authority even further.

Higher education officials and educators hope the new programs will help address workforce needs while also increasing opportunities for people across the state, especially those who have felt not having a four-year degree had limited their careers.

Come September, Chemeketa Community College will be the first community college in Oregon to offer an applied baccalaureate degree — a bachelors in applied science in leadership and management.

“It’s changing the career trajectory of students that got a two-year degree that really find that hard stop because their organization, society, whatever has arbitrarily said, ‘A two-year degree gets you here,’ and we want to start to peel that away a little bit and give them that opportunity to continue their career trajectory,” said Tim Ray, Chemeketa’s dean of agriculture science and technology.

Chemeketa’s program will be the first, but it won’t be the last.

According to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, Mt. Hood Community College and Lane Community College are also working toward getting new applied baccalaureate programs out the door — in cybersecurity and business, respectively.

John Wykoff, deputy director of the Oregon Community College Association, said the main difference between an applied baccalaureate and a more traditional bachelor of science or bachelor of arts at a four-year university is that the applied baccalaureate is meant to be used in a particular profession, or to teach students a very particular skill set.

“What it’s really doing is creating a continuing pathway,” Wykoff said.

Wykoff said there’s been a relatively recent, national push for community colleges to offer these applied baccalaureate degrees, starting around 2010. At that time, over a dozen states in the country had colleges offering the degree programs. Now, Wykoff said, applied baccalaureate degree programs are allowed in 24 states, including Oregon.

Wykoff said nationally, these applied four-year degrees have been especially helpful to underrepresented students, such as students of color, low income students and students from rural communities.

“Whether it’s the cost of a four-year degree or the fact that they’re more comfortable in the community college atmosphere where you’re going to have smaller courses and a lot of wraparound supports — a lot of students will do better in these programs, and it really gives them an educational pathway to higher earnings and more lifelong career opportunities,” Wykoff said.

Pushing past the ‘paper ceiling’

At the Salem-based Chemeketa Community College, Ray said the idea for the new program in applied management and leadership came from stakeholder conversations. Ray said the broad applicability of a program focused on management seemed suited to serve a variety of businesses and industries.

“Not just focus on health care or agriculture or manufacturing, but really be able to serve all industries and every working person in our service district that is in a job that may have been a result of a two-year technical degree from us, and now they’ve kind of hit … the paper ceiling,” Ray said, referring to college credentials. “You don’t have the degree that allows you to move into management or supervisory positions because your organization requires a bachelor’s degree of any type.”

Ray and one of the program’s instructors, Marg Yaroslaski, said the program will be structured to allow students to work full-time, preferably in the fields where they hope to land leadership positions.

“Obviously because we’re working with people that have complicated lives, we’re going to build in some flexibility,” Yaroslaski said.

The program will be hybrid in nature, with students having scheduled meetings with instructors a handful of times throughout the term. The college is planning for the rest of the class work to be done online, with all of it tied closely to their careers.

“They’re not reading a book of theory and taking a test,” Yaroslaski said. “We’re talking about this and then they’re going back to their business and scanning the environment saying, ‘Oh, that person over there has a very different leadership style than I might adopt, but I can take those things and apply them in an interesting way.’”

Yaroslaski said this program could be a way for local businesses to hire internally for management positions, rather than do time-consuming outreach and recruitment.

“‘I have to do a national job search to find that person,’ No. Just look within your company, find those people, and let’s build them up,” she said. “So your succession becomes very solid.”

Ray said it could also be an advantage for businesses to hire people who already know the particulars of the jobs they would be managing.

“It’s designed to build on the technical skills that they gained from their two-year degree, and give them the next skill set again in that people management, leadership planning, goal-setting type scenario,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do for our students and our business and industry community. … Now they can take people who already understand the business and invest in them.”

Ray said he sees the program applying to people with a variety of job backgrounds, from a medical transcriber wanting to manage their office to a firefighter one day hoping to be chief.

“We’re kind of building the airplane while we fly it,” Yaroslaski said. “I think it’s set up to allow us to evolve to meet the needs of each cohort.”

Mixed reactions from Western Oregon University


The move allowing community colleges to offer four-year applied degrees has received cautious support from universities.

Western Oregon University, the closest public university to Chemeketa — roughly 20 miles away — sent its support in the form of a letter last year to Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

WOU’s provost and vice president for academic affairs Rob Winningham wrote that Chemeketa’s new applied baccalaureate program could build on the community college’s existing two-year degrees and possibly lead to future collaboration with Western.

“WOU and Chemeketa are already having conversations and coordinating to build upon the proposed BAS by creating a direct pathway into WOU’s Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership degree program,” Winningham wrote.

Winningham said Western does not think Chemeketa’s new program will negatively impact the university’s enrollment.

“More importantly, this new degree program has the potential to better serve students in our region,” he wrote.

There are some concerns out of Western, though.

WOU’s faculty union told OPB that instructors worry Chemeketa’s new program could cut into Western’s enrollment.

Most of Oregon’s public universities saw declines in enrollment over the course of the pandemic, but Western has seen the most dramatic decline of the past few years — roughly 27% fewer students this fall compared to 2018, according to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

“While we work closely with our community college partners, we must also address the adverse consequences that this may cause,” the union said in a statement. “Current budget shortfalls are leading to deep cuts to faculty and staff at Western, and we worry that the addition of these degrees at the community colleges will also affect our ability to provide needed services to our students, given that we serve similar populations to the community colleges…”

The push — and pushback — around dropping ‘applied’ for nursing degrees

The community colleges are hoping to take another step that is already drawing concern from the universities — the ability to offer a bachelor of science in nursing, or BSN. Without the word “applied” attached.

Most of Oregon’s 17 community colleges already offer two-year nursing degrees and now have the authority to offer a bachelor of applied science in nursing. But, by attaching the word “applied,” the colleges end up offering a degree that is not recognized in the industry or among nursing boards.

There’s another problem with the “applied” label when it comes to nursing. With the exception of specifically designed programs, applied degrees tend to be “terminal” degrees, Wykoff with the Oregon Community College Association said. That means a student earning a bachelor of applied science in nursing would not have the opportunity to go on to a master’s degree. That’s a necessity to become a nurse educator, an in-demand job across the state.

“In this case, it’s really important that a student be able to go on and do that because that’s where a big part of the choke point in the pipeline for nursing is — that we don’t have enough nursing educators,” Wykoff said. “So, we want to ensure that students would still have that option to move on.”

The Oregon Legislature will discuss the colleges’ ability to offer BSNs though Senate Bill 523. That bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Education. There aren’t any hearings scheduled for it yet.

Institutions that currently offer BSNs in the state include Oregon Health and Science University and private institutions like University of Portland, Linfield University and George Fox University.

OHSU said in a statement that its five nursing school campuses already work with community colleges through the Oregon Consortium for Nursing Education.

Through that consortium, students complete their first two years of nursing curriculum at a community college and then continue on through one of OHSU’s campuses.

OHSU agrees there’s huge demand for qualified nurses in Oregon and across the country. But it said much of that need is for nurse educators and to increase the availability of clinical training for students, and it said the community colleges being able to offer BSNs won’t address those problems.

“Senate Bill 523 does not address those key limitations to expanding nursing education capacity and instead would allow the creation of novel nursing degrees that would duplicate existing nursing education programs in all but their ability to set students on a path toward career and educational growth,” the university said.

OHSU Hospital, 2019.

OHSU Hospital, 2019.

Courtesy of Oregon Health & Science University

The Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities, a collaborative group made up of leaders across Oregon’s nonprofit private institutions, also said it does not think giving the community colleges the ability to award BSNs will address the nursing shortage. In fact, the group said, it could potentially have a negative impact on the existing shortage of nursing faculty.

“Clinical space and finding qualified faculty are the main obstacles in community colleges conferring BSN degrees, not program capacity or geography (most BSN completion programs are available online),” the alliance said in a statement.

“The inability to accept more students in current programs is attributed to a lack of nursing faculty and clinical placements, not to the ability for ADNs [Associate Degree in Nursing students] to attain a BSN.”

The alliance said instead work should be done to reduce the wide pay gap between nurses and nurse educators, and there should be a statewide, centralized system for clinical placements to reduce competition between nursing programs and hospitals.

Wykoff with the community college association believes providing students with more options across the state will help, and that giving the community colleges the opportunity to offer these degrees may seem like competition, but Wykoff said, that’s not the point.

“We do anticipate and know there will be some concerns from both the public and private four-year sector,” he said. “We’re really trying to look at this as what’s right for students and giving more options for students, less than what it means for particular institutions.”

Wykoff said he doesn’t really see this affecting the current universities offering BSNs because the students that would benefit most probably aren’t attending those schools in the first place.

“There’s particularly an issue in the rural areas where there are fewer choices,” he said. “Our students are often paying out-of-state programs, online programs, where we think they could do it more easily by continuing directly through their community college.”


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