3 Cheers for Associate Degrees

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg writes that it's time to stop treating those who don't finish at a four-year college as failures.

April 1, 2014

The story has Biblical overtones. Twin brothers grow up in a typical middle-class household. Brother A reads Charlotte’s Web and Chronicles of Narnia; Brother B swirls a basketball with the finesse of Meadowlark Lemon. Friendly, social boys with agile minds, over the years their looks remain identical as their skill sets meander in independent directions.  A has Ivy aspirations. B isn’t sure about four more years but ultimately decides to attend a local community college.  

By the second year of college A begins to think about graduate school and B is getting ready to graduate with his associate degree, eager to enter the work world. In the middle of year three A is adrift; he changes his major and he begins to skip class. B is now part of an employee team designing a new marketing plan, learning “the way” of the work world. By the end of year, A leaves college and moves back home. 

The world’s view: B is a success; and A -- the dropout -- is a failure. Without a credential on his résumé, A finds it difficult to find work. He’s stuck in a rut.

Suppose A’s college recognized his two years of work and awarded him an associate of arts degree (A.A.)? Then he too would have the necessary ticket to get through the employment gate.

College study provides two primary values: it stretches the mind, develops critical thinking and broadens the base of one’s knowledge; and by awarding a degree it puts a stamp of approval on one’s back that says the student has met certain standards. That hechsher -- that certificate -- signals to hiring personnel that this individual has jumped through hoops and over hurdles: an important requirement has been met. Check mark in Box One.

Workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 60 percent more than those without a degree. And students with an associate degree earn 25 percent more. Yet within those gross statistics lie many variables that nuance the figures: major field of study and occupational choice are but two categories. Graduates (with bachelor’s or associate degrees) earn more if they studied health professions or STEM than those in most other fields. But the earned degree level matters most in calculating the economic value of higher education. Note the use of the word economic value, not educational value. Breadth and depth of knowledge is not being quantified, only field of study and degree attained.

Three years of college study but no earned degree is worth less in the market place than two years of college that culminates in an associate degree. If that is so, then why not award the A.A. to students who successfully complete two years of study but don’t make it to the finish line at traditional four-year institutions?

A good part of the answer lies in self-image and perceived respectability among one’s peers. The world of higher education is obsessed with rankings: best in class. Research universities that grant not only bachelor of arts or science degrees but also masters and doctorates are on the top of the chart. Community colleges that offer only associate of arts degrees not so much. Faculty are paid differently, research expectations are not the same, test scores of entering students are often widely variant at the two extremes. 

But as Kent State University has recently proposed, it is time for the Academy (with its capital A) to adjust its ways, to re-examine its degree policies and to turn failure into success. Let’s reward students for what they have done, not what they failed to do. Let’s allow them to readjust their lives, to take the AA degree out into the marketplace, to join the work world. Let’s commend the positive, not stress the negative.

If at some point in the future they wish to return to the university or pursue additional learning online there is no reason that cannot happen. Securing one’s education in stages may be one of the most viable alternatives we seen in the future. 


Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and university professor at the George Washington University. He is the author of Presidencies Derailed: Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent It (Johns Hopkins University Press).


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