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Is it too late to save the associate degree?

Community colleges have weathered the pandemic poorly. Enrollment at two-year schools has declined steadily for a decade. States, desperate to raise the number of workers with college degrees, are seeking creative ways to make that happen. Universities are offering full financial aid packages for prospective students with limited household incomes. They’re also issuing an associate degree to students who earned at least sixty credits before dropping out. Additionally, they’ve dropped standardized testing requirements for admission.

In a bid to make themselves more attractive to university admissions officers, high school students increasingly favor community college credits (and whole degrees) over Advanced Placement options traditionally offered in high schools. Community colleges anxious to increase enrollment are admitting large numbers of under-eighteen students. Some community colleges – like WCC – have opted to promote skill based, non-degree certificate programs over associate degree paths. Adding pressure is the shrinking wage gap between high school and community college graduates.

None of those things bolster the value proposition for community colleges.

If that is not enough, most students who enroll at a community college intend to transfer to a university, but few actually do. That means many community college graduates leave their school with sixty credits of degree prerequisites that have no particular value in the job market and student loan debt. These students have only a slim chance of transferring to a university, and an even slimmer chance of graduating with a four-year degree.

Employers still have a strong preference for hires with bachelor’s degrees, but they are rethinking that as the labor market tightens. That is good because high school students – those who have not dual enrolled – are rethinking college altogether. Being able to enter the workforce directly after high school and command a decent wage means some high school graduates never even consider college.

Losing focus on occupational associate degree will hurt

Community colleges have always had a dual mission: providing occupational education and preparing students to transfer to a four-year university. However, occupational education is expensive to provide. So, when administrators are looking to reduce expenses, occupational/vocational education programs make a tempting target. Therefore, an overt focus on transfer students comes with a lot of negatives.

As mentioned earlier, an associate degree made up exclusively of transferable credits contains a huge, unmarketable skill deficit. The only way that degree will pay off is if the student who earned it transfers and then completes a four-year degree. Right now, seven out of ten do not.

Focusing on dual enrollment students and transfer students at the expense of students in occupational programs comes with downsides. Dual enrollment only kicks the enrollment problem down the road. Unfortunately, enrolling high school students today only ensures that there will be fewer high school graduates to fill near-future cohorts.

Eliminating occupational education capabilities to focus on transfers and non-degree certificate completions ensures a perpetually low graduation rate. The strategy guarantees that a community college district’s workforce has no serious chance of achieving workforce readiness at a level that supports economic growth and transformation. Also, it means that most transfer-prepared students will never actually transfer. So, this forecloses the possibility that they will graduate with the keys to the middle class: a bachelor’s degree.

Community colleges lack strategy to rebuild two-year degree value

To date, community colleges have not responded with a strategy that counters pressure from the universities. There is no rational analysis of the long-term impact of dual enrollment on community colleges. And there is some data to suggest that an increasing proportion of minors on campus and in classrooms discourages older students from enrolling.

These factors all lead to the same question: can community colleges save the associate degree? Or more aptly, is it worth saving?

The answer remains to be seen. If community college administrators want to preserve their options, then they will need to take steps to increase the economic value of an associate degree immediately.

Photo Credit: Kevin Krejci , via Flickr