U.P. community colleges, universities battle over programs

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Capital News Service

LANSING – The House has narrowly passed a legislation that would allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in four programs, escalating a battle between the Upper Peninsula’s two-year and four-year colleges.

Upper Peninsula Reps. Mike Lahti, D-Hancock; Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette; and Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard, voted no. Rep. Judy Nerat, D-Wallace, voted yes.

Under the proposal that now goes to the Senate, community colleges would be able to grant bachelor’s degrees in nursing, cement technology, maritime technology and culinary arts.
Current state law limits community colleges to granting associate’s degrees.

Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba and Gogebic Community College in Ironwood have their sights set on expanding their nursing programs.

Laura Coleman, president of Bay de Noc, said the region’s nursing students need more accessible and affordable programs to obtain their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

“My personal concern is that in the next five years, it’s going to become a requirement for RNs to get their BSN,” she said. “Universities can’t branch off and take care of that many nurses.”

But Northern Michigan University counters that universities can meet the educational needs of present and future nurses.

Michigan’s 15 public universities, which are all members of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, have pledged to start a bachelor’s degree-granting program in any area with sufficient demand.

In a letter to lawmakers, the council explained the universities’ opposition to the proposal.
The letter said that allowing community colleges to offer four-year degrees is “unnecessary” and would lead to the “duplication of programs already available through Michigan’s public universities.”

But to representatives of community colleges, duplication is needed.

Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said that because of their geographic location and limited financial access, the Upper Peninsula’s community colleges are the “poster children” for the House-passed legislation.

And according to Coleman, many of Bay de Noc’s students are “place-bound” adults and some are in the work force, so it’s difficult for them to commute to the universities.

“It’s about providing a whole new chance for these people,” Hansen said, noting that nursing students in Michigan’s rural areas such as the Upper Peninsula are “shut out” of attaining a bachelor’s degree.

Michael Boulus, executive director of the state universities council, disagreed, saying the UP is “very well covered.”

“Nobody in the UP is screaming for more programs,” Boulus said. Northern Michigan offers a bachelor’s degree nursing program a little more than an hour away from Escanaba, he noted.
But Coleman said that driving times are longer winter months, when heavy snowfall makes it unrealistic to commute to Marquette.

“When you get into winter, the drive time is two-and-a-half to three hours. The Upper Peninsula gets 250 inches of snow a year,” she said. “Our whole thing is accessibility.”

Location aside, universities argue that community colleges lack the faculty and resources necessary to provide bachelor’s degree programs.

“Community colleges weren’t established for four-year programs,” Boulus said, pointing out that universities already collaborate with community colleges to offer bachelor’s degree programs.

For example, Lake Superior State University offers 13 degrees at Bay de Noc. The arrangement allows students to take three years of community colleges courses, plus the last year of Lake Superior courses at Bay de Noc at the university’s higher tuition rate.

Coleman said Lake Superior’s tuition deters many students from that option.

If the legislation clears the Senate and is signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, community colleges would be required to go through an accreditation process for new programs, which would be almost a four-year undertaking, according to Hansen.

Coleman said the accreditation process would give community colleges sufficient time to meet the predicted increase in nursing degree standards. Bay de Noc’s two-year nursing program is approved by the same organization that accredits Ferris State, Lake Superior State and other universities.

“We deliver a really good product,” Coleman said. “We know what we’re doing.”

However, university officials, including Cindy Paavola, director of communications at Northern Michigan, remain united in their position that with recent funding cuts for public universities, Michigan can’t afford to establish new programs.

“Until the economy hits an upswing, we don’t believe the state has the funding available,” she said. “The state is having issues funding the four-year programs at public universities.”

Boulus said the bottom line is that implementing four-year degree programs could raise operating costs of community colleges, increase property taxes and tuition rates.

But Coleman said expanding community colleges’ programs would be less expensive than universities presume.

“It won’t affect tuition one bit,” she said. “The last two years of BSN are mainly lectures, with one clinical course. It’s the cheapest area of course delivery.”

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