Associate degrees

Community colleges rely too heavily on low-value associate degrees that don’t lead to a transfer (opinion)

A new shopping center was recently inaugurated in my city. I took my 9 year old son, Hal, to the opening, and he was impressed by the giant scissors the promoter and the mayor jointly wielded to cut the ribbon. Hal asked if we could get a pair of giant scissors. I said no, although they’d probably save us the trouble of running around with scissors, and tried to distract him by telling him about the few times I’ve been to public events where giant checks are presented . Hal was fascinated by the idea of ​​giant checks and after some discussion we concluded that events like these are likely to feature giant scissors Where giant checks, but not both at the same time.

Which got me thinking – the next time there’s a public event to celebrate the opening or expansion of a community college, it might be a good idea to bring both: cut the giant check with the giant scissors to signify that money is wasted.

Community colleges have always had an image problem. I remember a mockery Saturday Night Live 1980s parody ad about a fictional community college named after one of New York’s most hated roads: Belt Parkway Community College. (Tired of going to a college named after a state or a dead white man? Come to a college named after a highway!) These challenges make community colleges inviting targets for bullies, like our 45th president, who said “a lot of people” don’t really know what community college “means or stands for” and, in a meandering flow of semi-linked ideassuggested renaming them “vocational schools”.

What community colleges stand for is clear. They were the first institutions of higher learning in the community at a time when four-year colleges and universities were inaccessible to all but a small portion of the population. As the first open-enrollment institutions, they revolutionized accessibility at a time when a university degree was not becoming a prerequisite for the job market.

What may puzzle President Trump, however, is that community colleges have always served two masters. First, vocational training programs in construction and industrial trades that four-year institutions do not want to deal with. These certificate programs have evolved to cover other sectors of the economy and, with few exceptions, lead indirectly or directly to employment.

The second offering from colleges is that of associate degrees. The 13 Saddest Words From Higher Education May Come From A comment on the job site Indeed: “I have a two-year degree in individual studies from Alfred State College. The post went on to say, “You would think having a degree would do me good to get a decent job, wouldn’t you? But all I seem to be able to get are really shitty jobs. What types of jobs can I apply for with this type of diploma? …I have what appears to be a useless piece of paper with a title on it.

Not all associate degrees are created equal. Some act as certificate programs, effectively validating students for a particular vocation. But even in these areas, like feeding with milk, employers are increasingly requesting or requiring four-year degrees. Hiring managers, who typically have a bachelor’s degree themselves, perceive associate’s degrees to be of the same kind, but less than. So why not demand the real thing? (As opposed to certificates, which are considered a different species – if you’re hired by an apple, better be an orange than an inferior apple.)

Employability is a huge issue for associate degrees. The most problematic associate programs are for students who don’t plan to stop there; more than 80 percent of students who enroll in community college-associated programs intend to transfer to four-year institutions. Of course, only 32% actually make it within six years, and less than 15% earn a bachelor’s degree within that time frame. The problem is the transfer. A GAO Report from last summer revealed that transferring students lose 43% of the credits they earned, which means even more time for life to interfere.


Community college general education programs lead nowhere. I recently gave a talk to a regional business group, and one of the attendees was the president of the local community college. He claimed that only a small minority of his students were enrolled in associates programs. I had two reactions: (1) That’s probably not true; and (2) Why so defensive?

My colleague at University Ventures, George Jian, analyzed the IPEDS data by looking at community college degrees and certificates earned. Making some educated guesses about completion rates and program length, he estimates that total community college enrollment in associate programs eclipses certificate program enrollment by a ratio of seven to one. About seven million students are enrolled in associate programs compared to one million in certificate programs.

In line with this analysis, earlier this month Eduventures published a report showing that growth in certificate completion (53% over the past 20 years) has been outpaced by growth in associate completion (70% over the same period). Eduventures pointed out that colleges and universities probably aren’t doing a good job of reporting all certificate program data. Even so, the data is not so wrong that there are many community colleges where only a small minority of students are enrolled in associate programs.

But my second reaction makes the point clearer: If you find yourself on the defensive about associate degrees in general studies, that’s probably an indication that you should stop enrolling students in them.

I understand why it is difficult. First, the majority of community college students are enrolled in academic programs designed and run by academics who on the whole would prefer to work at a selective four-year college, or some facsimile thereof (and there were probably educated); the programs associated with general education at the start are at least a facsimile of what they want to be.

Second, figuring out which certificate programs to offer requires dealing with employers, which is exhausting and often fruitless. It also requires attracting and enrolling students in shorter programs, which is a ton of work for the admissions and financial aid departments. It is much easier to enroll students who will stay for a few years, or at least plan to. Finally, driven by the dream of transfer, community college associates programs became a cheap and seemingly convenient entry point to public four-year institutions: broken on-ramps to nowhere.


I’m not naive enough to believe that community colleges will ever drop associated general studies programs. But for any community college that wishes to offer these programs in good conscience, frictionless transfer should be a requirement. By frictionless, I do not mean articulation agreements that delegate the recognition of transfer credits to the departmental or faculty level. I mean something like Virginia’s dual admission program.

Following a State Law amended in 2007, Virginia requires each public four-year university to have a dual admission plan in place with each community college. Dual admission has two aspects. First, students are admitted to community college and university simultaneously. Second, students have a single advisor – either at the university or at the community college – who can speak authoritatively about which courses to take to ensure there is no leakage when transferring.

Dual admission plans require aligning course learning outcomes at two different institutions and are not easy to execute. So you won’t be surprised to learn that only one of the Commonwealth’s universities follows both the letter and the spirit of the law: George Mason University, thanks to its relationship with Northern Virginia Community College. The GMU-NOVA CC partnership is, as one dean put it, “a joint deal on steroids.”

Some might argue that community colleges have another option for saving associate programs: building deep relationships with high schools. An alternative strategy could be double listing. In dual enrollment programs, high school students are concurrently enrolled in a community college. Although these programs are becoming more common, many students criticize dual enrollment because they receive lower grades in their community college coursework, which frustrates college applications.

Also, I don’t know of any dual enrollment program that consistently manages to get students to 60 credits by the time they graduate from high school. Last but not least, dual enrollment programs have yet to solve the transfer problem. Dual enrollment presents the same fundamental challenge as free community college: It may be free, but where does it get you?

I want to mention one final negative impact of associate degrees in general studies. To the extent that “predatory” for-profit colleges remain a significant problem in higher education, they are largely a market response to community colleges’ continued reliance on associated programs and the disruption not natural and generally tragic result at the point of transfer. This pause is directly responsible for tens of millions of working adults with an expectation of college completion that for-profit marketers have skillfully filled.

States that are serious about improving postsecondary outcomes will follow Virginia’s lead and require all public institutions to do the hard work of implementing dual admissions. Or they can feel free to continue writing giant checks to their community college systems. Don’t forget to bring the giant scissors.