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Universities turn to associate degree strategies

Earlier this month, Butler University in Indianapolis, IN, announced that it will open a free, two-year associate degree program for local low income students. Students who complete the first two years may return to earn a bachelor’s degree at a cost of about $10,000.

That’s impressive, considering that Butler’s annual tuition after financial aid is about $37,000. The program will start enrolling qualified students in Fall 2025. Students will take the same classes and have access to the same campus services as regular Butler admits. The majority of students will be Pell-eligible and will also be eligible for a state scholarship for low-income students.

In February, the West Virginia Senate passed a piece of legislation that would allow West Virginia State University and Bluefield State University to offer associate degrees. That measure died in the West Virginia State House, but the Senate vote shows that there is clearly an appetite to permit at least some of the state’s four-year universities to issue sub-baccalaureate degrees.

Pittsburg State University, in Pittsburg, KS, will now automatically issue associate degrees in General Studies to students who have completed the requirements for the degree. Pitt State’s enrollment has declined by nearly 42% in recent years. In making the announcement, Pitt State president Dan Shipp said that about 600 former Pitt State students have met the requirement for a General Studies degree. The university will retroactively confer the credential.

In 2017, the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, MN, created the Dougherty Family College to address the educational needs of low income students. Currently about 95% of the students in DFC are Black. Like other programs, most students are Pell eligible and eligible for other low-income grants. DFC is modeled after Arrupe College at Loyola University.

Community college associate degree won’t be the same

When someone on the Board of Trustees of a community college gets so comfortable that they literally ask “Where are we going to lose them to?,” this is where community colleges will lose their students. When universities start offering two-year degrees, allowing students to take the same classes and get the same support services for the same or lower cost, then give them the opportunity to go on to complete a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree from a community college isn’t going to compare very well.

Regional universities are hurting for enrollment, and they have an organized lobby in Lansing. The State wants people to earn 60 credits by 2030, and its program, Michigan Reconnect, isn’t having the desired overall impact.

But what if the state permitted regional universities to automatically issue associate degrees once a student hits 60 credits? Or allowed regional universities to open community colleges within their current structure? Retroactively issue two-year degrees to past students who have met the requirements? That would increase the number of people with credentials – just what the Governor wants.

These universities would drain away students who would otherwise enroll in a community college transfer program. The students’ ultimate goal would be a four-year degree, so these universities would not offer vocational education – although they might offer a two-year nursing degree here or there.

The competition for students is already fierce and will sharpen further as the cohort of traditional university-age students shrinks. What would WCC do if Eastern asked for permission to offer an associate degree? How long would WCC’s transfer program hold up?

Photo Credit: Barrett Cook , via Flickr