Should community colleges be allowed to offer bachelor's degrees, housing?
One Illinois community college could offer bachelor's degrees, and others could run their own student housing operations under separate legislative proposals that have some observers wondering: Are the state's two-year schools looking to change their traditional role?
Supporters of both ideas say no, that the schools merely are trying to serve the needs of their communities and their students. Opponents, though, are less convinced.
Both proposals have cleared one legislative hurdle, the Illinois House of Representatives, and stalled in the state Senate. Before becoming law, they would have to pass in the Senate and be signed by the governor.
Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, is the main House sponsor of House Bill 1434, which would let Harper College in Palatine set up a pilot program through which the school could offer a bachelor's degree in two areas: Public safety administration/homeland security and technology management.
Even if the legislation eventually becomes law, several conditions would have to be met before Harper actually could follow through with any four-year degree program.
For example, Crespo noted, four-year public institutions would have a "right of first refusal." In other words, if a four-year school stepped in to offer a bachelor's degree program at Harper in either of the two subject areas, Harper would not be able to duplicate such a program.
Northern Illinois University, which opposes the Harper legislation, believes that instead of letting two-year schools have bachelor's degree programs, the emphasis should be on developing partnerships between four-year schools and community colleges to accomplish that same goal, a spokeswoman said.
Melanie Magara, Northern's assistant vice president for public affairs, said the school already offers such degree-completion programs by working with various community colleges, including Rock Valley College and Kishwaukee College.
A big issue, she acknowledged, is money – specifically, public funding for Illinois colleges and universities.
"The pie is shrinking and clearly one of the issues at the heart of the opposition to this proposal is this issue of the shrinking pie, the shrinking amount of public resources available to support higher education," Magara said.
But Crespo calls his proposal "a risk-free pilot program" that would not seek money from state government. Instead, tuition and the Harper College Foundation would fund it.
"It's easier for a community college to meet certain needs than a four-year institution," he said. "If I thought for one second that Harper College -- if what they had in mind was to, at the end of the day, become a four-year institution, I would not have taken the bill."
As for the future of his legislation, Crespo said: "I don't think it's died. I'll continue working on it."
The battle could be an uphill one, though, because one of the other opponents to the proposal is the Illinois Community College Board, which serves as the state coordinating panel for community colleges.
"With Harper, if they want to offer baccalaureate degrees and change their mission, then they should be a university," said Guy Alongi, chairman of the ICCB. "We are strongly against the change of mission."
Debate has been somewhat less fiery on the issue of whether community colleges should be permitted to own and operate their own on-campus housing units.
House Bill 414 would partially lift the ban that prevents the schools from doing that now. Community college foundations, however, may own and operate such housing, and that is the case at East Peoria-based Illinois Central College.
If enacted into law, HB414 would apply only to community college districts that encompass eight or more counties. ICC, Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield and Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg fit that description.
"I think it makes sense," said Rep. Aaron Schock, a Peoria Republican who spearheaded the bill's passage through the House.
Community colleges throughout Illinois used to be pretty similar to one another, Schock said.
"But most community colleges now have very career-specific courses that are unique to their district," he said, citing ICC's Diesel Powered Equipment Technology Program as an example.
Such programs attract students who live far away, and they need housing while they're in the program, Schock said.
The main opposition to the idea has come from four-year institutions, Schock said.
"They know this is not going to be the downfall of the U of I or Western. It's more of a philosophical battle," he said.
Western Illinois University in Macomb went on record this year as opposing Schock's housing legislation, as well as the Harper College proposal, said John Maguire, WIU's assistant vice president for university relations.
"We're wanting people to address the big picture" on both matters, which he said should be part of a larger discussion on the role of community colleges. That discussion doesn't have to take place in front of the General Assembly, he said, adding that the Board of Higher Education might be a more appropriate venue.
John Avendano, ICC's vice president for academic affairs and student development, said that while college-owned housing would serve students better, not being able to do that "would not stop us from being able to meet our mission."
Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, is the Senate sponsor for House Bill 414. He said he intends to advance the community college housing legislation later this year, despite concerns raised by the four-year institutions.
The universities "don't want the community colleges to turn into universities," Jacobs said. "They may tell you something different, but that is the bottom line."
"I think the universities in Illinois are so well-established, they don't have anything to worry about," he added.
Officials at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield and Heartland Community College in Normal said they're not thinking of their own housing or bachelor's degree programs right now.
Adriana Colindres can be reached at 217-782-6292 or Adriana.firstname.lastname@example.org
Legislation expanding authority of community colleges in Illinois:
House Bill 414.
What it would do: Permit certain two-year educational institutions – those located in community college districts that encompass at least eight counties – to own and operate on-campus homes for students or staff.
Status: The House of Representatives voted 82-32 for the bill in March. It moved to the Senate and has not been acted upon there.
House Bill 1434.
What it would do: Permit Harper College in Palatine to set up a pilot program offering bachelor's degrees in two fields of study if certain conditions are met. For instance, the degree program must not compete with any nearby public university. The pilot program would end in four years. Harper says one of the bachelor's degrees would be offered in public safety administration/homeland security and the other in technology management.
Status: The House of Representatives voted 69-48 for the bill in April. It moved to the Senate and has not been acted upon there.
Adriana Colindres, reporter
State Capitol Bureau -- GateHouse Media
Pressroom, Illinois State Capitol
Springfield, IL 62706
phone: 217-782-6292; fax: 217-544-9611