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It’s Time to Answer Important Questions about Applied Baccalaureate Degrees


Sameer Gadkaree, Senior Program Officer for Education & Economic Mobility, Joyce Foundation
Holly Zanville, Senior Advisor for Credentialing and Workforce Development, Lumina Foundation

Each year, some 4 million community college graduates in the U.S. earn career-focused associate degrees in fields such as nursing, education, or business. These degrees, including Applied Associate of Science (AAS) and Associate of Science (AS) degrees, are high-quality credentials that lead to good jobs requiring valuable technical skills. 

But as time goes on, those graduates may need further education to move up in their career.  Management positions in firefighting, for example, increasingly require a bachelor’s degree, and there’s a shift in hospitals across the country towards hiring bachelor’s-level nurses. 

What happens when these graduates need a bachelor’s degree to move to the next rung on the career ladder? Unfortunately, in today’s educational system, their AAS and AS degrees don’t bridge well to most university bachelor’s degrees. That means these graduates are often stuck with credits that don’t easily transfer – and that adds time and thousands of dollars to the process of getting the next degree.

Many states and institutions have stepped up to allow community colleges to award the bachelor’s degree to students who transfer in with career-focused associate degrees. In fact, more than 90 community colleges across 18 states award a bachelor’s degree in at least one field. These degrees are almost entirely career-focused─ most are Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Applied Science degrees. Six other states allow their  community colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees – but those colleges have not yet chosen to do so.

Early research from states with experience conferring these degrees – Florida, Texas, and Washington, for example – suggests that their applied bachelor’s programs have higher retention and completion rates than their associate degree programs. But questions remain:

  • How do such programs increase college completion and improve outcomes after graduation, particularly for working learners and those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds?
  • How can state higher education leaders best balance employer, employee, and institutional needs in crafting policies to govern these degree offerings?
  • How can these degrees be designed so that they appeal to students, most of whom will be working while they are pursuing the baccalaureate?  
  • In what ways can higher education leaders and philanthropists help expand opportunities for employers who seek to advance their workers’ skills?

The Center on Education and Skills at New America and the Community College Research Initiative at the University of Washington are teaming up to answer these questions, supported by a joint grant of $700,000 from the Joyce Foundation and Lumina Foundation.

Soon we’ll all be able to better understand how well applied bachelor’s degrees are filling employer needs, how these degrees can help working learners, and how they can be an effective tool for state policymakers. It’s time to answer these important questions.