Cuesta College President Jill Stearns and Allan Hancock College President Kevin Walthers unite for the announcement of the efforts to offer a bachelor's degree at the two community colleges.
Cuesta College President Jill Stearns and Allan Hancock College President Kevin Walthers unite for the announcement of the efforts to offer a bachelor's degree at the two community colleges. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Two Central Coast community colleges have united to bring bachelor’s degrees to their campuses.

At a kickoff event Thursday in Santa Maria, representatives of Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo announced the UnitED Central Coast campaign to get the state to allow them to offer bachelor’s degrees as a low-cost, accessible opportunity.

“When you look at our community, we’re in a higher-education desert,” said Kevin Walthers, superintendent/president of Hancock.

With Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara severely impacted, those institutions don’t have the capacity to serve all the students in the region, Walthers said. 

“We would love for a CSU to offer a regional solution like they do in the Imperial Valley,” Walthers said.

California State University institutions in Imperial Valley, San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire have expanded to offer bachelor’s degrees in neighboring communities. 

“If we can’t get that kind of service here on the Central Coast,  we need to provide it ourselves,” Walthers said.

Since Cal Poly’s unique mission makes it unlike regional other CSU institutions, the closest campuses are in Bakersfield or Channel Islands, Walthers said.

To fill the need, the two local community colleges will seek permission from the California Community Colleges Board of Governors next year to offer a bachelor of arts in education at Cuesta and a bachelor of science in applied professional studies at Hancock.

“Cuesta College is seeking to solve the biggest workforce challenge in San Luis Obispo County that is centered on a bachelor’s degree, and it’s our local teachers,” said Cuesta President Jill Stearns, . 

Schools teaching kindergartners through 12th-graders need more than 100 new educators each years due to attrition, she said.

“Cuesta College is proposing a bachelor’s degree that would help to close this massive workforce gap and really meet the needs of our local K-12 districts,” Stearns added.

Walthers said a conversation with a Bonipak Produce/Betteravia Farms leader revealed that the firm’s employee needs don’t necessarily center on ag since they instead seek those familiar with human resources, logistics and more. 

Community college students typically earn associate’s degrees or certificates, and must transfer to a University of California, California State University or private university to complete bachelor’s of arts or sciences. 

Over time, state policies have changed to allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees as long as they are not offered anywhere else. 

A pilot program in 2014 allowing California community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees has been “incredibly successful,” Stearns said. 

Data from those programs revealed a 97-98% completion rate for students accepted into the programs. 

Some 73% of those students graduate without any student debt, a statistic that brought mutterings of wow and applause from the audience.

A community college bachelor’s degree costs $10,500 while the same 4-year degree through a CSU is $25,114, a number that does not include the individual campus fees, which can top $5,000.

Hancock will seek permission in winter 2024 from the board of governors to begin the program, while Cuesta plans to submit its request in fall 2024. 

Both programs could begin as soon as 2025, and each would have approximately 50 students at the start.

However, opposition from a CSU institution can scuttle plans, Walthers said.

One community college in Northern California sought to offer a degree focused on fire prevention and restoration, but Cal State San Marcos in San Diego County protested the plan, he said. 

“We’re in the first steps of this process to get to having an actual program where our students can get a four-year degree here on the coast,” Walthers said. 

The event also include support from top education leaders in both counties, community college students, and superintendents of Santa Maria Valley school districts. 

“Bringing the opportunity of obtaining a bachelor’s degree at Hancock is something that will change the odds for so many students and community members alike that face the institutional barriers that are ingrained in our educational journeys,” said Samantha Martinez, Hancock College student body president.

Organizers have asked for people to submit letters of support by Nov. 15. 

Letters can by sent via email to or sent via regular mail to Kevin Walthers, superintendent/president, Allan Hancock College, 800 S. College Dr., Santa Maria, CA 93454. 

Various templates for letters can be found by clicking here. 

In addition to its Santa Maria campus, Hancock College offers classes at the Lompoc Valley Center and in the Santa Ynez Valley and on Vandenberg Space Force Base. 

Cuesta College, with its main campus between San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay, also holds classes at its North County campus in Paso Robles and the South County Center in Arroyo Grande.