College's Board of Trustees approve resolution Wednesday to take the first step toward developing applied bachelor’s degree programs.

JACKSON TWP.  Stark County's only two-year community college soon might begin offering four-year bachelor's degrees.

Stark State College's Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution Wednesday for administrators, faculty and staff to take the steps needed toward developing and gaining state approval so it can begin to offer applied bachelor's degrees.

While Stark State already offers access to bachelor's degrees at more than 40 universities and other colleges through credit transfer agreements, this would be the first time Stark County's largest higher education institution would offer a four-year degree program entirely on its own campuses.

A provision in the recently enacted state budget gave Stark State and Ohio's 22 other community colleges the option to offer certain applied bachelor's degrees, which are more narrowly focused than the bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degrees at traditional four-year institutions. Applied bachelor's degrees are meant to be an extension of the community colleges' existing associate degree programs with the same focus of preparing students for direct entry into the workforce.

To offer an applied bachelor's degree, Ohio House Bill 49 requires community colleges to prove to the chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education that their proposed program would fill an unmet need of local businesses in an in-demand field with long-term sustainability or that it uses a unique approach that would benefit the state or the state higher education system.

Community colleges in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton and Springfield have expressed plans to offer applied bachelor's degrees for programs ranging from manufacturing technology management to industrial automation to unmanned aerial systems once the state's approval system is developed.

Jeff Robinson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said the work to develop the process to review the applied bachelor's degree requests is a high priority for the department and under way, but did not provide a time frame for how soon the process would be ready.

Possible four-year offerings

Stark State President Para Jones said the college, which is the fourth largest public two-year college in Ohio, is not looking to duplicate bachelor's degree programs area universities offer nor to abandon any of its more than 230 programs that offer associate degrees and certificates.

"It's not our plan to go into bachelor's degrees in a broad way, only where they align with our region's workforce needs," Jones said. "We have a lot of very high-demand applied associate degree programs and technology fields that we feel are very important now. We will not be advancing (bachelor's degrees) as our core mission."

Jones said Stark State plans to explore offering an applied bachelor's degree for its occupational therapy assistant program, one of the oldest and largest programs in Ohio. It is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Jones said ACOTE is considering making the bachelor's degree the minimum educational credential for occupational therapy assistants. She said the closest bachelor's program for occupational therapy assistants is at the University of Findlay, more than 140 miles west of Stark State's main campus in Jackson Township. Jones said the trek is inconvenient for Stark State graduates, who are often older than a traditional college student and have responsibilities beyond the classroom.

"Many of our students have asked us over the years, 'Why don't you offer a bachelor's degree?' And we have said because we are not authorized to do so by the state,” Jones said. “So I think there's probably pent up demand in Akron, Canton and all other surrounding communities."

Tina Biasella, director of external affairs and community relations at Kent State University at Stark, wrote in a statement that Kent State consistently evaluates all of its academic programs to ensure the university offers the appropriate credentials for the program's respective industry. 

"National attention is rightly focused on both the time and cost of earning a valuable degree," she wrote. "The entry-level degree required to work as an occupational therapy assistant is the associate degree, which we currently offer at Kent State, rather than a bachelor’s degree at twice the cost."

Kent State's occupational therapy assistant programs are offered at its regional campuses in Columbiana, Ashtabula and Trumbull counties. The program is not offered at the Stark campus. 

Biasella did not directly respond to The Canton Repository's question about whether the university, which shares a campus with Stark State, supports the Stark State's proposed applied bachelor's degree program for occupational therapy assistants.

During deliberations over the state budget, at least one university association expressed concerns to state lawmakers that allowing community colleges to offer bachelor's degree programs could create an overlap with university offerings. Jones said Wednesday she has not heard any direct opposition.

Jones, who mentioned dental hygiene as another potential candidate for an applied bachelor's degree, expects it to take up to two years before Stark State will begin to offer the four-year programs due to the lengthy approval processes of both the state and accreditation agencies.

Reach Kelli at 330-580-8339 or kelli.weir@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @kweirREP