Whose Associate Degree Is It?

Four-year institutions tend to bristle when nearby community colleges push to award baccalaureate degrees. In Missouri, the tables have turned: Officials at Three Rivers Community College are decrying plans by Southeast Missouri State University to award associate degrees in their backyard.

May 25, 2010

Four-year institutions tend to bristle when nearby community colleges push to award baccalaureate degrees. In Missouri, the tables have turned: Officials at Three Rivers Community College are decrying plans by Southeast Missouri State University to award associate degrees in their backyard.

Friday, Southeast submitted a proposal to the state’s Coordinating Board for Higher Education to begin offering an associate of art degree at three of its satellite campuses in Kennett, Malden and Sikeston – all within Three Rivers' service area. The plan would not increase Southeast’s operating costs, as the university already has the appropriate courses and professors to award associate degrees in place at its satellite campuses. If anything, more students attracted by this could mean more money for the institution.

Ronald Rosati, provost at Southeast, said he views his institution’s push to award associate degrees at its satellite campuses as a drive for “recognition of what’s already going on” there. Though Southeast is a “moderately selective” institution at its main campus in Cape Girardeau, it remains an open-access institution with a slightly lower tuition at its three satellite campuses. Most students at these campuses stay for a year or two before transferring onward, either to the main campus or to another four-year institution to pursue a baccalaureate degree; a few, however, stay at the satellite locations to pursue four-year degrees that are offered there in specific fields.

“We’ve been operating like a community college for more than 20 years,” Rosati said. “It’s just that we’ve never had the authority to award associate degrees. We see a lot of benefit to the region in having the ability to award them. There are financial benefits for students, especially for those that stop after two years and want to take advantage of an associate degree. Also, it would be great to award associate degrees in the high-demand fields we already serve, such as nursing.”

Three Rivers, however, has branch campuses of its own in each of these small towns. And though these branch campuses currently do not offer enough courses for students to complete the associate of art degree there – most take on the remainder of their coursework at Three Rivers’ main campus in Poplar Bluff – the community college submitted a proposal earlier in the month to the Coordinating Board seeking permission to make degree completion at them a possibility.

“Southeast Missouri’s plan is definitely mission creep and market gobbling,” said Devin Stephenson, president at Three Rivers. “It’s also contrary to the intent of the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education’s policy.”

Current board policy, last updated in January 2009, offers quite a few guidelines on “duplication of effort” and “certificate and associate degrees.” It notes, for instance, that “[p]ublic two-year institutions should be the primary providers of lower-division certificates and associate degrees offered by public colleges and universities throughout the state, including those involving Web-based delivery.” Additionally, it states that “[p]ublic institutions that are not open-admission institutions are encouraged to phase out associate degrees over a five-year period, with the assumption that two-year institutions or open-admissions four-year institutions will assume responsibility for existing programs that continue to have demand and/or meet state needs.”

Stephenson interprets state policy to mean that Three Rivers is entitled to first dibs on associate degree delivery in its service area. He says that, if Southeast is permitted to offer the two-year degree on its satellite campuses, he will not be worried about losing students because he is comfortable with Three Rivers’ “strong brand.” Still, he said that Three Rivers would fight any decision giving Southeast this permission.

“This is a matter of principle, not a matter of competition,” Stephenson said. “It raises issues of trust. I would certainly hope that the Coordinating Board would make a decision that reflects their public policy. But I will say this to you: we’re not beyond addressing this legislatively. If we feel as though a decision has been made that is not in accordance with public policy, we’re already meeting with legislators and decision makers to do something.”

Stephenson said that a decision in Southeast’s favor would open something of a Pandora’s Box of possibilities for other institutions in the state, ultimately muddling all of their distinct purposes and missions. He also acknowledged the anomaly of the sector friction within his state, since typically it is four-year institutions that cry “mission creep.”

“I think this really sets up the stage for all degrees to be fair game at any institution in Missouri,” Stephenson said. “We don’t offer four-year degrees because we haven’t wanted to. We’ve worked within the framework we’ve been given. But I guarantee, if this goes through, all the two-year colleges in Missouri will look into getting into the four-year business.”

As Southeast’s proposal arrived late Friday, Robert Stein, commissioner for the Missouri Department of Higher Education, said that he had not had enough time to review it yet. But he did offer a restrained response to the sector tussle in his state.

“The [Coordinating Board] has promoted focused missions at all Missouri public institutions,” he wrote via e-mail. “There is an expectation that proposals for new associate degrees will come primarily from two-year institutions, but the needs of the citizens are always the major driver of decisions. The [Coordinating Board] has adopted public policy that promotes delivery systems and the use of limited resources that are in the best interests of students. Ultimately, no one institution or sector has a corner on the market for associate degrees; ‘primary provider’ just means there may be exceptions to the rule. Missouri institutions have also agreed, when they have disagreements, to resolve conflicts expeditiously and through facilitation if needed.”

Rosati said that he does not want the push-and-pull between sectors in Missouri to become a “turf battle,” adding that he and other officials at Southeast “do not see it that way.” He said that the institution is simply responding to growing public demand that its satellite campuses have the ability to award the associate degree.

If approved, Southeast would not be the only four-year institution in the state to have designated two-year campuses. The Coordinating Board authorized Missouri State University at West Plains to award associate degrees in 1977. Though it is considered a "branch campus" of Missouri State’s main Springfield location, West Plains has separate regional accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. It is located in a rural, southern area of the state, where there is not a community college for at least 100 miles.

Rosati noted that Southeast is looking into getting separate accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission for its satellite campuses, if they are given permission from the state to award associate degrees, much like West Plains.

Southeast and Three Rivers’ proposals are currently receiving feedback from the public. After this comment period, the Coordinating Board will make a decision on them, but it is not yet clear when that will be.

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