Left Off

June 25, 2014

As graduation season winds down, many former college students are picking up their framed diplomas to hang in new offices or homes. These diplomas are an important reminder of long years of dedicated work, but how much do the name on the diploma and the degree category actually matter? Since graduation season coincides with my annual post-semester spring cleaning, it is a question I consider each time I wipe the dust from one of my four diplomas.

In January I was one of the opening forum speakers at the annual Association of American Colleges & Universities meeting in Washington. I was there to talk about my experience teaching a massive open online course. Audience members were curious about the subject of alternative degree paths, MOOCs and competency-based programs. In my attempt to answer one question about nontraditional degree paths, I expressed concern that some programs might lack recognition or prestige. To illustrate my point, I explained that I proudly hold an associate of arts degree from DeKalb College (now Georgia Perimeter College) — the largest associate degree-granting college and the third-largest institution in the University System of Georgia. To some people in the academy, such an admission sounds like an embarrassing confession.

When I began pursuing my first college degree as a 27-year-old freshman, I was still working full-time. Frankly I wasn’t sure I could succeed in college, which is one reason I chose the local community college. By the time I graduated three years later, I was proud of my achievements, and I was confident about my ability to achieve even more academic success.  In fact it was a couple of the wonderful professors there who first talked to me about going to graduate school, and their belief in me made me want to continue my education. Without question, my associate degree was the most difficult of the four I have obtained — yes, even more difficult than my Ph.D.

Flash forward a few short years, to my graduate school experience. It was during this time that I first encountered an adviser telling me I should not include my A.A. on my C.V. When I was finishing my Ph.D., I had even more advisers tell me I should exclude that line. Even now, almost 10 years post-Ph.D., I often still get the same advice from colleagues. The amazing part is that all of the people who counseled me to omit my A.A. really seemed sincerely to believe they were helping me. When I have asked about leaving off an entire degree from my list of credentials, I am usually told that it doesn’t matter: “Your B.A. says everything you need to say.” Really? Does it say how hard it was to manage a career, a home life and college? Does it capture my anxieties about being too old, too late, too unprepared? Does it represent the immense sense of accomplishment I felt the day I first graduated from a college? No.

One thing that seems implicit, even insidious, in the act of “leaving off a degree” is the kind of self-censorship that signals another message: Recognizing an A.A. exposes me to questions about my struggle and my nontraditional path — leaving me open to the potential that others might mark me as an imposter who somehow managed to subvert the traditional path to the highest echelons of academic life. Clearly for some academics, nontraditional experiences do represent an inferior experience — one I shouldn’t share publicly. Oglethorpe University, the University of Tennessee, and the University of Nebraska — these places and the degrees I earned from them are the only ones to cite.

However, there also seems to be a problem with the degree itself. Has the A.A. joined a high school diploma as something not worth mentioning? What if you only have an A.A.? What if you only have a vocational degree? For many people the kind of work they aspire to does not require a degree or the kind of the work they aspire to is in fact certified by an A.A., and Ph.D.s like me pay plumbers, electricians, mechanics, and the like, very well for the skills they have. 

The problem of name recognition and traditional credentialing is not limited to the academic world. Degree names and categories are like brands, and your brand matters. Consequently, I have to wonder about the current focus on the future of alternative degrees and about how those degrees will be judged. Is name recognition so important that it is another indication of why MOOC platform providers began by limiting courses to those associated with prestigious universities? Just a week ago Starbucks announced a new employee college program with Arizona State University, a program that replaces a current one with Strayer University. Name recognition, anyone? Perhaps there were other more compelling reasons for the change, but I am suspicious that branding might be a factor — if not for the benefit of the employee-students, perhaps for enhancing the reputation of Starbucks.

Questions about the reputations of certain institutions (and by extension questions about the legitimacy of their degrees) happen — even questions regarding community colleges that are part of well-respected university systems in many states. Educators and policy makers must begin asking questions about whether there will be equal recognition for students pursuing alternative degrees or competency-based certificate programs. I also feel strongly that a variety of constituencies (educators, policy-makers, business leaders, parents, and non-degreed professionals) must begin asking questions about how to better promote the lifelong success of people who choose not to attend college.

If we are to sincerely promote new paths toward lifelong success, we must also acknowledge the consideration individuals will have to make when choosing what may or may not be the correct path for them — a path that could very much be about the name recognition of the college they list on their resume or the decision not to pursue a degree at all.

And that’s why, when I offer my biography or C.V. or any public summary of myself, I proudly include my A.A.
 

Bio

Karen Head is assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Literature, Media, and Communication and director of the Writing and Communication Program's Institute-wide Communication Center.

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