published Monday, April 29th, 2013

Degrees of difficulty: Plan to add baccalaureate programs at Chatt State is going nowhere fast

Wacker graduates pose for a photo after commencement exercises in February at Chattanooga State Community College. James Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State, has  put a proposal before the Tennessee Board of Regents to offer a small number of bachelor's degrees at the college.
Wacker graduates pose for a photo after commencement exercises in February at Chattanooga State Community College. James Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State, has put a proposal before the Tennessee Board of Regents to offer a small number of bachelor's degrees at the college.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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PROPOSED DEGREES

Chemical processing engineering technology

Mechatronics engineering technology

Nuclear engineering technology

Radiological sciences

Technology management

BOARD OF REGENTS

6 universities

13 community colleges

27 technology centers

Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro wants you to stay in school — specifically, his school.

Catanzaro, who brought training centers from Germany, who opened a $33 million health science center, whom the Gallup Organization calls a "Maximizer," now wants to add five applied science bachelor's degrees to his community college. He first proposed the addition to the Tennessee Board of Regents and has been lobbying ever since.

By 2018, he hopes, Chattanooga State will graduate about 60 students per year with these degrees not currently offered by area four-year institutions.

And though more states are deciding to do what Catanzaro proposes, he is running in the opposite direction of Tennessee leaders. They want community colleges to remain two-year institutions. And they want those two-year institutions preparing many students to transfer to universities.

Grady Bogue, interim chancellor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said adding bachelor's degrees at Chattanooga State would depart from the original mission of a community college.

Catanzaro's plan could open a door that, once opened, won't close. Other community colleges could follow with similar proposals.

"This is not just about Chattanooga," Bogue said. "This would affect every school in the state."

Bogue's and Catanzaro's points of view represent an argument playing out across the nation.

In 2010, state lawmakers passed the Complete College Tennessee Act, a reform plan to increase the number of students earning bachelor's degrees. The plan doesn't call for people to stay at community colleges such as Chattanooga State for more than two years.

Instead, students will go to community colleges, earn general education credits and then transfer to universities after their sophomore years. Gov. Bill Haslam told the Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier this year that bringing four-year degree programs to schools such as Chattanooga State does not fit his vision for higher education, and his office said earlier this month that his thoughts have not changed. Haslam is on the Regents board of directors.

Poll
Should Chattanooga State offer bachelor's degrees?

Catanzaro believes the state can accomplish both missions. He said his school can funnel most students toward universities while also providing four-year degrees to a small group. Chattanooga State would offer programs not found at UTC or any other area university.

"We have all the equipment," Catanzaro said. "We have the faculty that could teach today at the baccalaureate level. We could do it at minimal cost -- no cost, really -- to the state of Tennessee. And we can start it just like that."

Bogue, on the other hand, said community colleges should focus on providing inexpensive freshman- and sophomore-level courses, and on preparing people to work if they don't want to stay in college four years. Right now, 189 Chattanooga State students are enrolled at the Wacker Institute or the Volkswagen Academy, both of which are designed to lead to jobs with the companies.

•••

University presidents say adding bachelor's degrees at community colleges could ruin the higher education system. Students could pursue degrees at schools that never get accredited. And those that do get accredited -- be it at a university or a community college -- may earn watered-down honors. If everyone can get the degree, what's it worth?

Worse, bringing bachelor's degrees to community colleges could raise tuition, eliminating a cheaper alternative for families with less money.

In December, Michigan joined a group of 20 other states to let community colleges offer bachelor's degrees, a list that also includes Georgia. Eight years ago, only 11 states allowed such systems.

Many community college presidents, meanwhile, support the idea of more bachelor's degrees.

Like Catanzaro, they say their schools only will offer programs not provided by the four-year universities. Because community colleges are smaller -- with fewer administrators -- and because their campuses are less impressive, classes at their schools will remain cheap.

Southwest Tennessee Community College President Nathan Essex said through an assistant that a local hospital has asked him to create a nursing degree. Essex has not yet proposed a plan to the Board of Regents.

Cleveland State's Carl Hite and Nashville State's George Van Allen say they won't yet add bachelor's degrees, but they think community colleges should be allowed to do so.

"This is inevitable," Van Allen said. "It's going to happen."

•••

As part of Catanzaro's proposal, members of about 20 companies wrote letters saying they would benefit from Chattanooga State's plan.

Byron Stutz, the chief radiological technologist at Erlanger hospital, said a radiological sciences bachelor's degree program would allow hospitals to be more efficient. Someone with that degree would have the skills to do the jobs of two people.

But those opposing Chattanooga State's plan argue that, if such a need really exists, a university can make the degree available. With schools already desperate for more funding, expanding bachelor's degrees to community colleges will only dilute resources.

"We need to be better with what we got," said Karen Bowyer, the president of Dyersburg State.

Nine months after Catanzaro submitted his proposal, it still sits with the Board of Regents. A spokeswoman said it remains under consideration. Since November, Catanzaro has met with board members three times -- most recently April 15. He won't say how those meetings have gone. He doesn't want to jeopardize the plan.

"Things need to be thought out and acted on carefully," he said, "and on the other hand, I don't just let them sit on the shelf."

But for now, he waits.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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