MiraCosta College is one of 15 community colleges in California taking part in a pilot program that offers bachelor's degrees to help students get jobs in high demand fields.
Roberto Ruiz, James Holmes and Farshad Massrour are among the first group of about 25 students set to graduate this spring with a 4-year degree in Biomanufacturing from the Oceanside college.
"What we are learning here, it's exactly what the companies, and also the industry, is looking for and needs," said Massrour. "They don't have to spend that much money and time on us, training us for the positions we'd be working for, since we have had a lot of time and a lot of hands-on experience inside a lab."
Biomanufacturing uses living things to create products, from food to cosmetics to next-generation cancer therapies.
"Biomanufacturing is a huge part of the San Diego industry," said Barbara Juncosa, the Biotechnology Department Chair at MiraCosta College. "In San Diego overall, there are over 1,200 life science companies."
MiraCosta College already offers an associate degree in biomanufacturing, but in such a specialized industry, a two-year degree could limit a worker's career growth.
"With biotech and biomanufacturing there's always continuous movement," said Holmes. "There's always a new trend coming out in the market. So just staying on top of what the trend is, and improving accordingly is really what the industry is trying to focus on. How can we better improve everyone's health and basic fitness on a global scale."
The new bachelor's degree programs at select community colleges don't compete with those offered at four-year universities, but rather complement them.
Universities often concentrate on theoretical applications, whereas community colleges help teach students the practical elements of a field.
A plus is the lower cost of a community college.
"It's really great not having to deal with any kind of class debt or school debt in general," said Holmes. "I'm applying that to my future goal of getting into a master's program."
The friendships students are forming during lab projects and class discussions may even extend into their work lives.
Ruiz also works at a biotech company while working towards his bachelor degree.
"The opportunities that my company offers, I'd like to extend to (Massrour and Holmes) if the opportunity arises," said Ruiz. "They'll be my first picks."
Mira Costa College isn't planning to offer any other 4-year degrees and will keep its focus on preparing students for a career in biomanufacturing.
"A lot of the next generation therapies that we're looking at, in terms of cancer, in terms of autoimmune disorder, they are so complex they have to be created by living things," explained Juncosa. "And that's where biomanufacturing really comes in.
SB 1406, which would extend the pilot program, was passed by the state legislature and needs Governor Brown's signature to become law.
"(It) would provide us with the opportunity to educate more cohorts and prepare those students for their career and would also give us time to gather the data on how we are impacting our student lives as well as the workforce in the region," said Juncosa.
San Diego Mesa College is also one of the 15 community colleges in California participating in the program. It offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Information Management and graduated its first group of students in the spring.