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Applying the Liberal Arts

May 6, 2010

Easing their way into awarding four-year degrees, some community colleges around the country have begun offering applied baccalaureate degrees with a technical, workforce-ready focus. Two-year colleges in Wisconsin, however, are lobbying the state system to let them offer a different kind of applied baccalaureate – one with a liberal arts focus and aimed at rural, place-bound adults.

In June, the University of Wisconsin Colleges, the state’s 13 associate-degree awarding institutions, plan to present a comprehensive proposal to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents to introduce the bachelor of applied arts and sciences (B.A.A.S.) degree. If the proposal is approved by the board, the new degree program would be offered on a pilot basis, starting in the fall of 2011, at six of the system’s two-year colleges in cooperation with six of the system’s comprehensive universities.

What makes the B.A.A.S. unique among applied baccalaureate degrees is its broad-based liberal arts curriculum. Its sister degree, the bachelor of applied science, is primarily a career and skills-based credential building upon the associate of applied science, which is often considered a terminal technical degree by employers. The B.A.A.S. follows similar breadth and depth requirements to those of a community college’s associate of arts and science degree; however, it also contains unique, significant “applied studies” requirements, such as classes in global awareness and cognitive problem solving, internships and service-learning projects. In this way, graduates learn to practically apply their liberal arts skills in the field. Students also select a concentration, in an area such as business or information technology, for their B.A.A.S. degree.

“This degree is extending the definition of ‘applied,’ ” said Beth Hagan, executive director of the Community College Baccalaureate Association. “It’s extended the definition to include disciplines that aren’t technical per se. It’s very much about the adult learner.”

The B.A.A.S. is still a relatively new degree. It has taken a particularly strong foothold at four-year institutions in Texas, where it is awarded by the University of North Texas, Sam Houston State University, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas State University at San Marcos to name a few. If the plan in Wisconsin is approved, however, it would mark one of the first times that any two-year colleges offered the degree.

Unlike moves by two-year institutions in other states to offer four-year degrees, the lobbying in Wisconsin is not facing a backlash by comprehensive universities crying, “mission creep!” So far, the Universities of Wisconsin at La Crosse, Platteville, Stevens Point, Stout, Superior and Whitewater – comprehensive four-year institutions – have all agreed to offer upper division courses either on-site at the two-year campuses or online to students seeking the new degree. The degrees, however, would be awarded by the two-year campuses. (Note: This article has been updated to correct an error.)

Similarly, unlike in Illinois and Florida, where state legislatures had to approve the offering of four-year degrees at two-year institutions, permission only needs to be given by the Wisconsin system for this change. Hagan said that this process and the degree’s focus on nontraditional students make it an easy sell in Wisconsin, where the two-year institutions primarily consider themselves transfer points to the system’s larger institutions for traditional-age students.

“This is so specific to adult learning,” Hagan said. “For Wisconsin’s two-year system, this is really stepping outside of their traditional mission. It’s really about helping meet that Obama initiative and bringing those people out in the workforce back.”

The Wisconsin Technical College System – a group of 16 institutions distinct from the University of Wisconsin’s two-year campuses – also has few reservations about the new degree. Daniel Clancy, the system’s president, noted that his technical colleges do not offer any four-year degrees and do not care to offer any, adding that he does not consider the move by the state’s other two-year institutions to be detrimental or put the technical colleges at a competitive disadvantage.

“My only concern is, 'What would be the opportunities it would provide for our students?' ” Clancy said. “All of our colleges offer the Associate of Applied Science, and a lot of graduates with that degree want to go on to pursue an bachelor’s degree of some sort. We’re just going to see how this evolves and how it will be implemented by the [University of Wisconsin Colleges] to see if our students can take advantage of this degree as well and if they can transfer in to earn it.”

David Wilson, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and Extension, said the proposed version of the B.A.A.S. in his state has been “built from the ground up, listening to the voice of industry,” to figure out how a liberal arts degree could meet the demands of the workforce.

“It is designed to make sure that adult students would emerge with a solid set of communications skills, great writing, oral skills, and then a great set of critical thinking skills,” Wilson said. “For a certain segment of the population, this will be a terminal degree. They’ll need a different set of skills to advance in their company and do well, so they’ll get this degree, but they are not necessarily interested in a master’s or Ph.D. program.”

Still, Wilson said, B.A.A.S. graduates should not have any problem advancing on to graduate school if they so wish. Ideally, he said, employers will pay for their employees to improve themselves with the new degree. He added that an initial survey of employers in rural parts of the state showed strong interest in the degree and its possible graduates. That is why, Wilson said, the degree would be piloted in parts of the state with the lowest degree attainment first.

Specific to the Wisconsin model of the B.A.A.S. degree is a 15-credit requirement of “professional experience.” Students must take on an internship with a local employer during their time in the program. They also must take on a service-learning project related to a subject of their choosing.

“A student studying digital imaging and design in an art course might provide a local nonprofit with a portfolio of designs for various community programs, an informational poster, or a regular newsletter,” reads the official proposal. “Developing educational materials for students with a particular type of disability might be a service-learning project for a student in the UW Colleges education class on ‘The Exceptional Individual.’ In a chemistry and society class, students might collect wood and soil samples from playgrounds in area city parks, collaborate with city government (e.g., a wastewater treatment facility) and state agencies (e.g., the Department of Natural Resources) in an analysis of the samples and report the data to pertinent city offices and state agencies. Students in a sociology class … might work with the local PTA to develop a plan for organizing an after-school program for elementary students or for the local hospital to increase patient numbers at the free clinic.”

 

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