Many University Students Don’t Graduate. Why Not Give Them an Associate Degree?

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Colorado is poised to enact legislation that will allow four-year institutions to offer associate degrees to students who have dropped out despite making significant progress toward a bachelor’s degree. The initiative, a switch-up on the growing number of community colleges offering four-year degrees, is part of wider efforts to support students and workers who were dealt a blow by the pandemic.

Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, says the state is home to more than 700,000 people with some college but no degree. About 13,000 Coloradans who left college during the past three years would be eligible for an associate degree under the Colorado Re-engaged Initiative created by HB 21-1330, she adds. The bill has passed both houses and is awaiting signature by the governor.

“There are students who went three or three-and-a-half years to a four-year institution, stopped out一for whatever reason, life happens一and could be a semester away from a bachelor’s degree,” Paccione says. “They enter the marketplace, and the highest credential they have is a high school diploma. That is just not right. You should have something to show for it that is marketable.”

Other states have similar programs. The University of New Hampshire offers six associate degrees, mostly in the sciences. The University of South Carolina has five regional campuses that offer two-year degrees, after which students can complete their bachelor’s degrees online.

Under the Colorado bill, four-year institutions would be able to award associate degrees to students who:

  • Did not transfer from a community college
  • Have not been enrolled for at least two semesters
  • Earned at least 70 credit hours, including core classes and other courses deemed required for an associate degree

Paccione thinks about the earning power of an associate degree一which she puts at an annual $13,000 to $15,000 more than a high school diploma一that those students are missing out on. The initiative will also encourage students to re-enroll and complete their bachelor’s programs.

“I know a person who has one course that they didn’t complete,” she says.

The financial consequences of having some college but no degree often extend even beyond reduced paycheck potential. Many people who start college without finishing are left to deal with debt from taking out loans to pay for tuition costs.

“So you went to college and you have nothing to show for it except three years of student loan debt一and a high school diploma,” Paccione says. “Every time I think about it I’m like, ‘How did we get away with that for so long?’”

The initiative will receive $1 million to operate and build a statewide awareness campaign.

If all goes according to plan, Paccione says, “This is going to be a big, big, big deal.”

An Idea Worth Spreading?

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says Colorado’s plan would be an attractive model to intuitions more broadly. Particularly as higher education wrestles with growing economic and racial segregation, she says, and the disproportionate burden of student loan debt on people who are already at the lower end of the socioeconomic rungs.

“I think it’s important at this moment that we can, as a result of COVID-19, reimagine higher education in significant ways to try and address this equity mandate,” she says. “This is one way to do it.”

She doesn’t foresee pushback on Colorado’s model from community colleges given its eligibility requirements. Rather, it creates a pathway for students who don’t see a pathway to finishing their undergraduate programs.

“I know one who had to stop out just a few credits short because his parents had died … and he had four siblings and needed to be a caregiver,” Pasquerella says. “Here’s one way that colleges and universities can address students who, through no fault of their own, couldn’t complete [their degree]. It’s demonstrating that an institution’s success is inextricably linked to the well-being of those in communities in which they’re located.”

Yet Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, is skeptical that the Colorado initiative will have the marketplace impact that state leaders are hoping for. Research has shown that general studies associate degrees don’t carry much economic value, he says. While it’s good that the initiative is putting restrictions on classes that will count toward associate degrees, he says, “you don’t see employers hiring students who have completed their sophomore year in their program, and this is essentially that.”

“If I were advising lawmakers in Colorado, I would say this is most valuable for the labor market and even further education if it’s for a coherent program or part of a program,” Jenkins says. “If it’s 70-odd credits in just general courses, it’s not going to have a strong enough labor market value, and it’s very likely that students will have to take more credits to transfer into a major field of interest.”

Rather, it’s two-year degrees in science, business, health care and social and behavioral science that deliver a return on investment for students, he says. According to Jenkins, the best models are those with strong transfer relationships between universities and community colleges, such as reverse transfer programs where students receive an associate degree by finishing their degree requirements at a university.

Regarding the Colorado plan, Jenkins says, “I suspect one motive is to jack up their completion numbers. If these degrees aren’t benefiting students, then you’re just playing a number game.”

In his view, four-year colleges considering associate degrees could learn from successful practices at the institutions that know them best: community colleges.

“What I would rather see is four-years, if they did it prospectively, design an associate degree that gives students the skills to get a job, to stop out, maybe take a break before they finish their junior or senior year,” Jenkins says. “The best transfer programs at community colleges are structured just that way.”



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