A hot topic in California higher education today revolves around community colleges awarding associate degrees that are meaningful yet unit efficient and that meet the needs of all of our students who invariably are pursuing different educational goals. These issues have been a predominant concern to transfer and articulation faculty over the last several years and are even more pressing today in the context of tighter budgets, an increase in students and in the projected need for workers in our state that have, at minimum, obtained an associate degree. Furthermore, interrupted educational paths due to the competitiveness for university admission and/or disproportionate and excessive fee increases are putting a Bachelor’s degree out of reach for many California community college students. Our legislators are also getting involved, as they are across the nation, to seek solutions to the apparent bottleneck in many systems where we see large majorities of students who begin the path to an Associate degree fail to obtain that award.
Currently, and in large part as a reaction to recent legislation (AB440-2009 and SB1440-2010), the statewide debate has centered around the imposing of local requirements on the Associate degree and their impact on transfer students. At the Fall 2009 Academic Senate Plenary Session, two resolutions on this issue were referred back to the Senate Executive Committee because the body felt there was too much confusion and misunderstanding to vote on the resolutions at that time. The Academic Senate does not support legislation determining our degree requirements because faculty are the curriculum experts and legislation would give up our control over what is central to our student’s education. However, as the counseling, articulation and transfer faculty who work daily with students on the nuances of transfer, we do understand and share the concern of students, legislators and other community college faculty, that measures must be taken to ensure that we are best meeting the needs of our transfer students in regards to earning an Associate degree.
For many of our transfer students, it is both the imposing of local graduation requirements and the 18-unit requirement in a major or area of emphasis that present barriers to an Associate degree. While these requirements may be perfectly appropriate for our terminal degree students, do they make sense for our transfer students? While university majors in engineering, mathematics, physical and biological sciences require at least 18 semester units of lower-division major preparation, majors in the arts, humanities, social and behavioral sciences typically do not. As a result, many California community colleges are designing associate degrees intended for students planning to transfer based on what faculty would like students to take in a certain discipline and not necessarily on the courses that correspond to the lower-division university requirements. For many majors in the social sciences and humanities (called low-unit majors), there simply are not 18 units worth of major preparation that can be completed on the community college campus. If a low-unit major transfer student wishes to obtain a degree, this may involve taking courses not required by the transfer institution and/or courses not related to the student’s intended major, which translates to additional time and expense for our students. The attainment of the Associate degree, which is a benchmark of accomplishment, then becomes secondary to the goal of transfer.
There have been concerns expressed that if we award transfer students an Associate degree based on the university requirements for upper-division transfer it will undermine our Associate degree because we are allowing the degree requirements to be externally defined. Those taking this position argue that awarding a degree to transfer students based on the external requirements to transfer means relinquishing control over our curriculum. Members of our committee respectfully disagree. There is no conflict with local control if we choose to award an Associate degree to our transfer students based on the upper-division transfer admission requirements of the university. If we proactively redefine our Associate degree for our transfer students based on these parameters, then we are not relinquishing control of our degree. Instead, we are recognizing that we are an integral part of the university system, providing our students with the lower-division portion of their baccalaureate degree on their way to upper-division studies at the university. This inclusive approach to our role in the education of our baccalaureate bound students best meets the needs of these students. Further, it emphasizes and honors our educational partnership with the transfer institutions and correctly focuses on the important role California community colleges play in the California Master Plan for Higher Education.
Others who object to aligning our Associate degrees fully with lower-division major preparation argue that colleges have very rational reasons for crafting two-year degrees that differ from the lower-division major requirements, one of which is that faculty have worked closely with employers in their community to include skills and knowledge necessary for success in the workplace. This is a laudable argument for our career and technical students whose primary goal is not transfer. However, when a baccalaureate degree does not require those same competencies (e.g., technology, health, physical education), it makes the argument to enforce on transfer students additional coursework not mandated by our segment partners less viable.
If we want to award our transfer students an Associate degree, the way to best serve these students is to define the degree based solely on the university requirements. We must avoid designing Associate degrees intended for our transfer students with locally defined requirements, whether they are major, general education or other graduation requirements that do not completely align with requirements for upper-division transfer to our universities. Doing so only confuses and potentially harms our students’ chances for a seamless, efficient transfer. Further, it undermines our inter-segmental relationship with our university partners and fails to recognize the vital role we play in the baccalaureate education of our students.