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Title

Modular Degrees

What if bachelor's degree programs built in associate degrees?

March 2, 2021
 
 

On Monday, Sara Goldrick-Rab tweeted an idea that I couldn’t get out of my head: “Every so-called ‘four year’ bachelor’s degree should grant an associate degree along the way.” The idea is to recognize that life happens, and that if a student’s educational path is interrupted, better to walk away as an associate grad than a dropout. It reminded me a bit of the way that some doctoral programs treat a master’s degree.

I’ll admit being a bit torn on this one.

She assures, in a subsequent tweet, that “this need not threaten community colleges.” Maybe. I'd need to see that argument fleshed out.

The obvious good in the idea is exactly what she stipulated in the first tweet. People leave college for all sorts of reasons, many unrelated to academic ability, and it’s better to leave with a credential in hand. That’s the argument behind stackable credentials. The concept is usually applied in more vocationally oriented fields, but there’s no reason it has to be. For example, my previous college had a C.N.A.-to-L.P.N.-to-R.N. track, which in turn transferred cleanly to B.S.N. (Here, the vocational school district owns the L.P.N. franchise.) Stackability works well in fields with industry-recognized certificates, like IT and auto tech. We even fold ServSafe certification into the culinary degree, so a student who leaves before finishing the degree at least has that.

In the best case, and I’ve actually seen this happen, students use those stackable credentials as on-ramps and off-ramps, leaving when they need to make money and coming back when they can. That’s murder on our time-to-degree metric, but it’s hardly news that many metrics don’t fit the reality of our students’ world. (Ever notice how many of the same people who champion stackable credentials also attack community colleges on time to degree, without noticing the contradiction? Me, too.) For people with complicated lives, the ability to improve earning power one semester or year at a time, interrupted by doing exactly that, may be the only viable option for moving up at all.

For a while, I worked at a college that offered both associate and bachelor’s degrees, with the former feeding the latter. DeVry did that. The N.J. campus got state licensing for associate degrees years before it got the approval to offer bachelor’s; when it got the latter, it kept the former. The arrangement was mostly positive, though it led to some awkward curricular decisions. For the associate to stand on its own, rather than simply amount to a consolation prize, it needed to have enough technical content in its field to be employable. That meant frontloading the technical classes in the program, and backloading the gen eds. A student who stuck around for the bachelor’s took more gen eds in the second half than in the first. The unintended side effect was that some of the technical content atrophied a bit while the student tried to complete a degree. When I got the telecom or CIS students in late-sequence electives in political science, I thought of it as a version of a finishing school.

That’s the reverse of the usual relationship between gen eds and major courses. Typically, the gen eds are frontloaded, during which time students are supposed to explore. Then, when they commit to a major, they’re supposed to jump in with both feet.

The key in any stack of credentials is that each credential has to be able to stand on its own. In this case, that may require the bachelor’s to rejigger its own sequence. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve long suspected that one reason DeVry had better associate degree completion rates than most community colleges was that it frontloaded the courses the students saw as the reason they were there. Once they got over the resistance to being “in school,” the gen eds went down more easily.

Presumably, too, if four-year programs had to resequence to allow for stopouts, they’d have to extend some of the same options to transfer students that they extend to their own. In this case, I’m thinking of freshman seminars and interdisciplinary courses. Those have a history of transferring badly, because they don’t fit cleanly into boxes on checklists. But if those schools have to work freshman seminars and interdisciplinary courses into associate degree sequences, they’d have a harder time denying those courses credit in transfer.

Would community colleges suffer poaching? Possibly. Given what has happened to our budgets over the last decade, that’s a real concern. But I suspect that many bachelor’s programs would have to undergo some serious resequencing to make the stackable model work. That might just force some productive changes, even if accidentally.

And that’s why I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.

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