Tuesday, April 01, 2014


Consolation Prizes

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg suggested yesterday that students who drop out of a four year program after two or more years should be awarded Associate’s degrees as a sort of consolation prize, like a year’s supply of turtle wax.

The argument is that a student who has put in two or more solid years of college has done some real work, but that she leaves with nothing to show for it.  An Associate’s degree signifies something concrete, and carries more heft than a high school diploma alone.  Since it’s better to leave with something than with nothing, Trachtenberg suggests, why not award the Associate’s as a consolation prize?


A few thoughts:

First, and most obviously, an Associate’s degree is a degree.  That means that it’s more than just a collection of random credits.  It has some sort of coherent pattern to it.  Curriculum committees at community colleges spend painfully long meetings hammering out distribution requirements, major requirements, credit hour allocations, and the rest precisely because the degrees are supposed to carry some sort of specific meaning.  

Yes, some degrees are much more forgiving than others.  On most campuses, the liberal arts or transfer degree will have much more room for choice than, say, an engineering or nursing degree.  But even the “looser” ones are more than just additive.

Second -- and this argument is usually used against community colleges, so it’s odd to turn it around -- there’s a difference between finishing what you start, even if it’s less ambitious, and walking away. Yes, that difference is often economic or external, but the students who are able to negotiate difficult circumstances and finish anyway really accomplish something.  

That said, it’s easy enough now in many cases for students to do “reverse transfers” into community colleges, and then to take a stray couple of courses to fill in gaps.  Most of the national discussion on transfer assumes that it only moves in one direction, but it doesn’t.  Reverse transfer is more common than one might imagine.  

I also wonder about the status issue that Trachtenberg raises but immediately drops:

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.

Okay...so if four-year colleges start awarding two-year degrees, does that imply a convergence on teaching loads, salaries, and the rest?  Or are the four-years just slumming?

The piece that Trachtenberg gets right is that student behavior on the ground is much more varied and dynamic than policymakers typically assume.  I don’t see that changing anytime soon, so it makes sense to rethink systems built as one-way streets.  Rather than having every college do every thing, which strikes me as a recipe for mediocrity, it would probably make more sense to have ecosystems of colleges in which each institution specializes in its own thing.  Students would be served best by knowing what can be found where, and by making it easy to switch gears, reverse direction, stop out to make money, and generally attend to life.  

But that approach implies respect across the board.  Community colleges have long respected the unique value that four-year colleges offer.  It would be nice to see that respect reciprocated.  

Isn't this done at the graduate level? You leave a PhD program early, you can earn a Master's degree. The type depended on how far you got through your education.

The programs are designed as PhD not Master's programs so many of your arguments would apply. Why is that ok but not getting an Associate's degree?

For those that complete two years at a 4 year college, how different do their transcripts look from those at two year colleges especially those who earn ADs on their way to earn a Bachelor's?

Or do you want those students who do two years at a 4 year college to take an extra couple courses at your community college and count towards your graduation rate?
It's often okay to step out with an MA on the way to a PhD because that is how the program is constructed anyway - the first few years are spent doing the coursework and projects/exams that apply to getting the MA, and then a dissertation is done on top of it. It isn't always the case, of course, but there is a coherence and specificity that I think is often lacking (with good reason!) in the first two years of college.
Generally agree with this post, but I could see some sort of recognition if a student has to stop after 2 years of successful college work (some particular grade point average maybe?) as opposed to the student who flunks a lot of classes, and is lucky to accumulate enough credits to add up to 2 years' worth of college.
It has some sort of coherent pattern to it. Curriculum committees at community colleges spend painfully long meetings hammering out distribution requirements, major requirements, credit hour allocations, and the rest precisely because the degrees are supposed to carry some sort of specific meaning.

It may have a "coherent pattern" but does that, or the "painfully long meetings," really matter, especially when much of education is a signaling process anyway? The biased way I phrase the question implies my answer.

I like the Trachtenberg, especially since offering a two-year option may encourage more students not to drop out after a year.
At my 2 year college, if we gave an AA to students just for doing time, our graduation rate would be through the roof. A degree may be a signaling device, but it's also signaling a basic mastery of gen eds or a specific topic - a collection of electives may or may not have any value toward any further economic or academic pursuits. An employer hiring someone with an AA is assuming that their employee can write and do math at a college level - 60 credits may not signal that, but you don't get the degree until you can.
I found your first sentence hilarious. I think it's incredibly destructive to have that phrase in one's head about e.g. the "consolation" Master's degree awarded to incomplete PhDs (I had never put it in those terms... but it pretty much sums up why I stuck with the PhD). But still, hilarious.

Anyway, I don't think there's anything wrong with someone who completed a program of coursework that would have counted for an Associate's degree (if only they'd been accumulated in one institution, or in a CC instead of a Bachelor's degree granting institution) getting one. We could even go back and find them (kind of like they started doing in project win-win: http://www.ihep.org/projectwin-win.cfm). But I'll also grant that someone who goes to college and plays sports for two years while taking golf and remedial classes, and then gets injured and so leaves the sport and campus, hasn't earned an AA/AS in any meaningful sense. The point is, with technology it should be straightforward enough track when course credit has met a given set of criteria.
I think the idea may, among other things, recognize an existing convergence of teaching load, salary, etc. for faculty who teach intro/core courses, whether at universities or community colleges. At least in my neck of the woods (and some of the conversations surrounding the Affordable Care Act and who counts as a single employer in the case of part-timers who work for more than one state college or university suggest that this is pretty common), the same adjuncts are teaching the same classes at both the local community college and the local regional state u at which I teach. And those intro/core classes that aren't taught by part-time adjuncts are mostly taught by full-time contingents with teaching loads similar to those of local community college faculty (the community college full-timers are paid better, but also have pretty heavy service expectations which those of us teaching full-time non-TT at the state u don't). We also get a lot of transfers from the local cc. So we're really part of one ecology -- so much so that a few brave faculty members have raised the question of what our university would look like if we didn't offer the first two years at all, or offered them in radically diminished form. The answer, of course, is budgetary disaster, since tuition from lower-numbered courses to some extent subsidizes higher-numbered courses. And that, of course, is one reason why many students are wiser to get their Associates' degree at a community college, and transfer. The more disconnected the research faculty and the upper-level courses they teach become from the core/intro level, the less reason there is for students to come to a more expensive university for the first 2 years -- and the more universities may be tempted to offer additional incentives to do so, including associates' degrees.
I don't think that associate's degrees should be handed out just for completing two years of college, but the idea of "four-year" colleges offering associate's degrees is at least worth considering.
At our institution we have a rule that says, "If you transfer in with an associates degree, we pretend that you have satisfied all of our very fussy and time-consuming lower-division distribution requirements." So I would suggest that the converse also applied: If someone satisfied the lower-division distribution requirements plus enough other coursework to get up to two years of real full-time study, then grant an associates degree. (The lower division requirements themselves take up at least 45 credit hours.)
I don't get the question. A university can't issue an AA degree on a whim because a kid has 60 credits any more than a college can grant a BA degree because a kid has 120 credits. Your accrediting agency has to approve a specific AA degree program with general education requirements just like at a CC, not a hodge podge of whatever the student wanted to take.
I hope that this two-year option will inspire a lot of students not to drop out after a year. Nowadays education is so important and at the same time so difficult to get. There are a lot of difficulties. First of all the program is not easy and our children don`t have enough motivation. Parents should definitely support them. If you are not good at some subject search for help in the internet (for example click here t get assistance in writing college papers). It is extremely important to know that children have someone who understand them and believe in them. To my mind it is also necessary to choose a ‘right’ profession which seem interesting for your kid.
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