LSC-CyFair will offer a Bachelor of Applied Technology in cybersecurity out of its Westway Park Technology Center off Beltway 8, and LSC-University Park will offer a Bachelor of Applied Science in energy, manufacturing and trades management at its Hwy. 249 campus.
The new programs were made possible by the passing of Senate Bill 2118 through the Texas Legislature in 2017. Designed to bolster workforce programs for in-demand skills, the bill authorized community colleges to offer up to three bachelor’s degrees in applied science, applied technology and nursing with approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Valerie Jones, the associate vice chancellor of academic affairs for LSCS, said one requirement laid out in the bill was that tuition rates would align with standard community college rates.
Students who have already earned an associate degree will be able to complete their bachelor’s degree for less than $10,000, according to Jones.
Based on tuition rates at public universities that are popular for local students according to college system data, bachelor’s degrees elsewhere could cost six times more than LSCS charges.
“Really at the heart of community colleges is that mission to serve the students that may otherwise struggle to have access to higher education, either for geographic reasons, for financial reasons [or] for scheduling reasons,” she said.
Jones said while LSCS is not the first community college system in Texas to offer bachelor’s degrees, it is the first to offer all three programs at once. Decisions regarding which programs would be offered were based on feedback from local employers and demand from students, she said.
While speaking with hiring managers in communities served by LSCS, Chancellor Stephen Head said he was repeatedly told about a shortage of skilled labor. Head said he believes offering these programs will help keep graduates local.
“When you get people trained at this level, it helps the economy because they make money; they buy houses and cars; they vote and all the reasons you want an educated public,” he said. “So we think over the long term, it not only helps the college but it helps our local communities. For the most part, people want to stay at home and go to college or stay near their home.”
Establishing new programs
LSCS’ three programs are among the 21 bachelor’s degrees approved for community colleges since 2017, said Stacey Silverman, the assistant commissioner for academic quality and workforce for the THECB. Another nine degree programs were launched prior to 2017, she said.
In 2003, the state approved a pilot project in which the coordinating board tested the effectiveness of allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees at Brazosport College, Midland College and South Texas College. After more than a decade of assessment, the Legislature extended the opportunity to all community colleges across the state, Silverman said.
“The universities had questions about whether or not community colleges should be offering four-year degrees, and our argument was these are workforce programs [and] four-year schools normally do not offer workforce programs,” Head said.
Since 2017, LSCS has worked to receive regional accreditation from the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges as well as approval from the THECB, Jones said. This included proving the college system had adequate resources to offer quality programs and notifying nearby institutions of their intent to offer a bachelor’s program and resolve any concerns.
“That application requires not only that we provide information about the curriculum, but that we show the economic need in our area, that we show support from our other higher education partners in a 50-mile radius in our area that there is a demand that is not currently being met,” she said.
Head said no new facilities were needed to offer the programs this fall, and the system has set aside money the last several years to accommodate them. About $300 million of the system’s $485 million bond referendum voters approved in 2014 is going to workforce facilities such as the $22 million, 133,000-square-foot Westway Park Technology Center located off Beltway 8 near Clay Road, he said.
Once the programs are up and running, LSCS officials said they will submit a report to the coordinating board every two years in addition to hosting occasional site visits and submitting more comprehensive reviews every 10 years. The board will monitor progress in student enrollment, finances and other factors.
Meeting workforce needs
Kim Hubbard, dean of the Westway Park Technology Center, said about 50 students would take part in the Bachelor of Applied Technology in cybersecurity program this fall.
Since the facility opened in January 2019, Hubbard said overall enrollment has increased, but especially in the cybersecurity program, which enrolls more than 200 students.
“We can maintain all of our programs on the level of working in industry, [and] that simply means students have the opportunity to come in and experience an environment that mirrors exactly what they’re going to be doing when they get a full-time job,” she said.
Following completion of the Associate of Applied Science in cybersecurity, graduates are qualified for entry-level positions.
With the Bachelor of Applied Technology degree in hand, graduates might obtain jobs as information technology specialists or cybersecurity consultants, Hubbard said.
According to the Texas Workforce Commission, such employees can earn more than $100,000 a year in the state’s Gulf Coast region.
Houston-based threat researcher Luke Leal works for Sucuri, a website security solutions company that provides incident response, monitoring and protection services to websites.
He attended LSC-Kingwood and the University of Houston but said he did not plan to pursue a career in cybersecurity. Rather, the opportunity came about when a previous employer needed to fill an open position.
Leal said the need for employees has outpaced the growth of a qualified workforce. However, programs educating individuals about the industry have also increased, he said.
“The increasing need comes from organizations continuing to see how costly an attack can be towards their overall operations and wanting to prevent or minimize the risk,” Leal said. “The future of the industry looks very promising in terms of available jobs and demand for it, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts much higher than normal growth rates for cybersecurity positions. This growth will eventually slow, so now is a great time to get a foothold in the industry.”
Meanwhile, at the LSC-University Park campus, President Shah Ardalan said it made sense to offer the bachelor’s degree in energy, manufacturing and trades management because of the facilities that were already in place—including a $1.2 million live manufacturing line and $1.6 million oil and gas simulation facility at the Energy & Manufacturing Institute.
The degree opens new opportunities for graduates who want to pursue managerial positions as opposed to technical jobs. Positions may include working in oil and gas, construction, electrical technology or machining, he said.
“You name it—anything related to energy and manufacturing—if they had the job, now they can be very well positioned to become a manager,” Ardalan said.
Ardalan said bachelor’s programs were designed for working professionals who already hold associate degrees and are looking to advance their careers. Eight-week classes with a combination of online and face-to-face instruction offered outside of traditional business hours accommodate such students, he said.
“Accessibility is one [advantage], but a big point is that it’s going to be a seamless transition from the associate degree,” he said. “Just two years going nights and weekends, and you don’t lose any credit; you don’t lose any money; you don’t lose any time.”
The applied science degree will also be offered at LSC-North Harris near FM 1960 and I-45, while licensed registered nurses looking to earn a Bachelor of Science in nursing can do so at LSC-Montgomery in The Woodlands.
The application process and entry criteria are also less strenuous than traditional four-year universities—especially for students who earned their associate degree at LSCS, Hubbard said.
However, the program will be competitive. According to Jones, within about a week of the application process opening Feb. 3, bachelor’s programs already had more applicants than seats available.
About 30 students will be accepted into the nursing degree program for the fall semester, and about 50 will be accepted into each cohort of the Bachelor of Applied Science programs.
Officials said expansion would come over time. Given the regional shortage of qualified nurses, officials said they are considering expanding the nursing program to the Cy-Fair and Tomball campuses, but no official plans have been made.
“We will seek to grow the program for all of our campus areas as quickly as we’re able to do so,” Jones said. “But the demand is there, and ... the goal is to be able to allow universal access to community members at all of our service areas, regardless of campus location.”
The push to bring more four-year programs to community colleges also aligns with the THECB’s goals to increase the percentage of Texans between the ages of 24-35 who hold a certificate or degree to 60% and to lower undergraduate student loan debt to less than 60% of first-year wages by 2030.
Ardalan said he believes helping individuals become more financially stable will benefit the entire community.
“If they were making, let’s say, $38,000 per year with an associate’s degree and now they’re going to be making $68,000 a year ... the more money individuals are making, the more we are serving the community,” he said. “Most of our graduates stay within the area, which means that has a direct impact on taxes paid, money spent and houses bought.”