CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — President Barack Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union address, said that postsecondary education is critical to the U.S. economic recovery, and reiterated his goal that 55 percent of 25-34 year-old Americans hold associate degrees or higher degrees by 2025.
But for many community college graduates, especially those in technical fields, their aspirations of earning baccalaureate degrees are stymied by a lack of curricular and transfer pathways between associate degree and baccalaureate programs.
The Office of Community College Research and Leadership, a unit in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, has begun a four-year project examining applied baccalaureate degree programs, which build upon historically terminal associate degrees, providing the upper-level course work and classes that help students progress through the baccalaureate level.
Funded in part by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program, the research project is being led by Debra Bragg, director of the OCCRL and a professor of education policy, organization and leadership in the College of Education.
Bragg has been studying AB degrees for the Lumina Foundation for Education since 2007, and in a recent study reported that at least one higher education institution in 39 of the 50 states offered ABs as of 2008.
About a dozen states – including Florida, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas – allow institutions such as community colleges and technical colleges that predominantly award associate degrees to award ABs. Hence, ABs are sometimes called community college baccalaureate degrees.
The remaining states, including Illinois, award ABs only through traditional baccalaureate-degree granting institutions.
“An AB really has to be created in partnership between community colleges and traditional baccalaureate-awarding institutions, whether the community colleges award the degrees themselves or transfer students elsewhere to complete the degrees,” Bragg said. “Regardless of who ends up awarding it, they’ve got to collaborate and work together to determine whether there is really a need for the degree program and that students’ credentials are viable in the labor market. The negotiations make the process a bit more complicated, but they also create a more rigorous and quality degree.”
ABs are available in a variety of disciplines, including highly specialized technical fields and emerging technologies such as green energy and nanotechnology. ABs could represent a pathway for the U.S. to catch up with other industrialized countries that now surpass the U.S. in college degree attainment and in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.
In a three-phase project, Bragg’s team plans to examine AB programs and related transfer degree programs in science, technology, engineering and math fields that are funded by the NSF-ATE. Using online surveys, they plan to document the programs’ basic characteristics and curricular models; the extent and ways in which partnerships between community colleges and baccalaureate-granting institutions are engaged. They also will profile the student populations served, especially minority, female and adult students, who are underserved in science-, technology-, engineering- and math-related disciplines, and examine student outcomes, such as post-graduation employment and wages, and how the programs conform to workforce needs.
An advisory committee of regional and national experts on educational policy, NSF-ATE programs and AB programs has been assembled to guide the research.
“Community college technical programs have become more rigorous and STEM based, moving these programs to a different level that deserves a re-evaluation of whether they can be baccalaureate level programs,” Bragg said. “That’s a curricular challenge: examining on a deeper level what students are learning and if it’s comparable to what students learn in a baccalaureate program.”
Students often enroll in technical programs at community colleges because they’re uncertain about their career goals but know that they need job skills, Bragg said. Later, they find themselves in a Catch-22: Their professional advancement is hampered by their lack of a baccalaureate degree – but their ability to get a degree is hindered by factors such as course credits that won’t transfer, family responsibilities and tuition costs.
Many AB students receive tuition subsidies from their employers, who don’t care whether their employees earn a traditional baccalaureate or an AB degree, Bragg said. “What they’re interested in is whether their employee has the skills and knowledge to do their job. Many times, they’ve already identified that person as someone they want to promote – but can’t without a baccalaureate degree.”
“If you ask me, ‘What is the real value of these degrees?’ I’d say, ‘They’re an opportunity to provide more access for students who have been under-served by the higher education system,’ ” Bragg said. “Most AB students are working adults, who are often low income and have never had an opportunity to go beyond community college because they can’t afford it and can’t give up their family responsibilities.”
Traditional baccalaureate-awarding institutions and for-profit colleges view ABs as opportunities for reaching adult learners. Likewise, states that want to increase college-degree attainment among adults and respond to employers’ needs for workers with baccalaureate degrees are turning to AB programs.
While critics of ABs say that the degrees reflect a trend of vocationalism that could degrade the value of baccalaureate degrees, “preparation for employment has been a major focus of higher education for a long time,” and disciplines such as business, engineering, health care and teaching that traditionally award bachelor’s degrees clearly prepare graduates for the workplace, Bragg said.
“To me, the issue isn’t so much about vocationalism as elitism – it’s about who gets access to a bachelor’s degree and who does not,” Bragg said. “The AB degree attempts to provide access for learners that many higher education institutions have overlooked or forgotten.”