Virginia should join a growing movement by letting its community colleges grant four-year degrees in some heavily demanded subjects as a way of reducing costs and increasing access to higher education, the governor's blue-ribbon commission on higher education was told yesterday.

Kenneth P. Walker, president of Edison Community College in Fort Myers, Fla., told the panel that his state's legislature had approved the change and that many other states were likely to do the same. "There must be a further democratization of education at the baccalaureate level to sustain our economic growth," he said.

Several members of the commission, meeting at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, said they were intrigued by the proposal but thought it would place too many new demands on community colleges and prevent students from getting a firm grounding in the humanities that should be a part of any four-year degree.

Alan G. Merten, president of George Mason University, said he was particularly bothered by a reference to the need for more "work force baccalaureate degrees," four-year programs in subjects such as fire science and manufacturing technology demanded by growing industries. "That scares the hell out of me," he said, because it raises the possibility of degrees being awarded without required courses in literature, art and other general subjects.

The commission is expected to recommend changes in Virginia's higher education system to Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) by the end of the year. Several members indicated that Walker's proposal, strongly supported by commission member Sidney O. Dewberry, requires much more study and will not be on their list of recommendations.

The commission chairman, Edward L. Flippen, asked Dewberry to seek the opinions of leaders of the Virginia community college system. Flippen said he was very impressed by the vocational programs offered at community colleges and was concerned that those programs "could be potentially weakened" by adding some four-year degree programs.

Northern Virginia Community College President Belle S. Wheelan, addressing the commission right after Walker, said she agreed with the Florida educator that community colleges provide a low-cost learning environment with none of the usual four-year entrance requirements. But she said offering four-year degrees would force increases in community college costs and reduce the pressure on existing four-year colleges to provide the new programs that are needed.

The commission spent much of the day hearing testimony on how to make universities more responsive to the changing needs of the economy. Walker argued that adding some baccalaureate degrees to the community colleges, which now offer just a two-year associate's degree, would help.

Community colleges have lower tuition costs, more available space and more emphasis on teaching by their faculty members, who average 15 hours of class a week, compared with six to nine hours for the typical university professor, Walker said. He said this puts them in a better position to meet three great challenges of higher education in the next century: "increased demand, limited access and rising cost."

Dewberry provided information showing that community colleges in Arkansas, Louisiana, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Oregon and Kansas are considering four-year degree programs, in most cases with strong opposition from four-year schools.

CAPTION: NOVA President Belle S. Wheelan expressed concerns about the degree proposal.