Symposium Entry

Too many higher education on-ramps lead to dead-ends

By Mary Alice McCarthy
Senior policy analyst, Education Policy Program at New America.

March 28th, 2016

The resistance to creating more pathways to the BA is one of the least appreciated factors driving our stubbornly low degree attainment rates.

Despite growing enrollments in higher education over the last three decades and large investments aimed at improving college access, our degree completion rate has grown only modestly. From 2000 to 2015, enrollments in higher education increased by 28 percent, but the percentage of Americans with a bachelor’s degree grew by just 5 percent. While the trend is in the right direction, the rate of growth is substantially lower than in many other countries.

There are many reasons why Americans are struggling to earn bachelor’s degrees, the most obvious being the rising cost of higher education. But among the least appreciated obstacles is how hard we make it for students who enroll in career-oriented certificate and associate degree programs to continue on to a four-year degree. These “career and technical” (CTE) programs are designed to help students move directly into a job in two years or less. Not surprisingly, given today’s tough labor market, the programs are very popular, particularly among adult and low-income students who need to balance their educational needs with other financial responsibilities. In fact, the programs make up the fastest growing segment of higher education today, encompassing between one-third to forty percent of all undergraduate awards.[1]

While some of the students in these programs may not be interested in ever earning a bachelor’s degree, recent surveys of community college students indicate that a large majority are.[2] Many of these students simply cannot afford to spend four years in school before getting a decent job, and are trying making the best of two bad options: choosing an educational program that will lead to a job but not a bachelor’s degree, or enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program they may never complete because of the expense and time it requires. And while some of the non-transfer programs lead to secure jobs that pay very good wages – as much, and in some cases more – than a bachelor’s degree, most do not. The majority of the programs lead to entry-level jobs that will be hard for students to advance beyond without further education and training.

An Historical Issue

Learning for work has never been well integrated into American education policy or practice at any level below the bachelor’s degrees. The marginalization of vocational programs has a long history in the United States that continues to exert a powerful influence over the educational trajectories of the students enrolled in them.

When the Higher Education Act was first passed in 1965 it did not include vocational programs. They were added as part of the 1972 amendments that also created the Pell Grant program. But these programs, while eligible for federal financial aid, were kept at arm’s length from the more traditional academic programs designed to lead to bachelor’s degrees and beyond. In fact, they were considered terminal in nature and the college credits earned through them were explicitly designed not to transfer to a bachelor’s degree.

It is this distinction between terminal vocational programs and academic programs that led community colleges to organize their course offerings along the lines of “transfer” and “non-transfer”. It also explains why there are over two thousand non-degree granting institutions in our federal student aid programs (e.g. cosmetology schools, massage institutes, etc.), and why credits from for-profit colleges, which tend to specialize in one and two-year career education programs, almost never transfer to a public or private nonprofit institution.

One would be hard-pressed today to find a policymaker or administrator talk about any educational programs as “terminal”. But that doesn’t mean that it has gotten much easier to transfer credits from vocational (CTE) programs to BA pathways. As recently as 2011, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) issued guidance to its members on the need to ensure that any credits an institution accepted from another corresponded to “more than a training experience.” The letter explicitly references the threat to the quality of bachelor degree programs posed by “recent innovative educational pathways [that] have the potential to blur the commonly held distinction between transfer programs and non-transfer programs.”

There’s No Easy On-Ramp

For SACS and other regional accreditors, maintaining the integrity of the bachelor’s degree means ensuring that students take a large number of general education courses during their first two years of college. It is this pyramid structure of the bachelor’s degree, which requires students to start with the broad base of general requirements before they specialize, that makes it so difficult to map on to. In fact, it is the reason why community colleges offer two types of associate degree tracks:  those designed for transfer to a four-year institution and those designed for students wishing to start their career.

The transfer degrees are made up almost exclusively of general education courses that mirror exactly what a student could have taken at a four-year institution. It has little stand-alone labor market value, but students who complete it can transition to a four-year institution as a junior, with the bottom of their pyramid complete. It is this kind of guidance that makes it easy for students to transfer almost any humanities or social science course from a community college (e.g. Introduction to French Cinema, Detective Fiction) and almost impossible to get credit for a course on welding or automotive repair–what counts are the general education credits, not the technical learning.

Forcing a Bad Choice

Forcing students to choose between programs that will either help them pick up valuable skills in the short-term or lead to valuable credentials in the long-term does not make sense. But our higher education system is surprisingly unfriendly to efforts to connect academic and vocational pathways below the bachelor’s degree.  This resistance to creating more pathways to the BA is one of the least appreciated factors driving our stubbornly low degree attainment rates: we have too many entry points into higher education that are dead-ends.

It does not have to be this way. Vocational education does not have to be terminal. In fact, the best vocational systems in Europe provide a series of connected programs that start in high school but can lead to advanced degrees. A number of countries are building out “higher vocational” sectors, with polytechnic or applied universities and degree programs that provide opportunities for advancement for those who started their education on vocational tracks.

Similar efforts are underway here in the United States, but are fighting an uphill battle. Since the 2000s, a growing number of states are allowing their community colleges to award select Bachelor’s of Applied Science (BAS) and Bachelor of Science degrees, enabling students to start and finish a four-year applied degree at a single institution. The degrees address two of the major barriers to four-year degree completion at once: the inevitable loss of credit upon transfer and the limited range of applied degree options at most four-years institutions. A growing number of competency-based bachelor degree programs at four-year institutions like Brandman University or University of Wisconsin-Extension are designed to help graduates of CTE programs build on their knowledge and skills to complete a four-year degree rather than start over.

Imagining Real Pathways to Success

Imagine a higher education system that created multiple pathways to a four-year bachelor’s degree. There would be the traditional pathway, with students starting and finishing their degree in the same institution, first completing their general education requirements and then spending the last two years focused on their major. For students looking for a more affordable route or who can’t quite get into the college they want right off the bat, there would be the pathway that begins in a community college transfer program and ends with the student graduating from a four-year institution.

And there would be a third pathway for those students who want to start their college education with some technical training that they can use to get a job and work for a while; when they’re ready, they can return to college and resume their studies, but with the understanding that their skills and work experience have educational value and are worthy of college credit.  This would be a more flexible approach to the bachelor’s degree that honors the purpose of the general education requirement more than a rigid set of rules around exactly how many credits a student must have to graduate.

A higher education system in which students can start their journey to a four-year degree and beyond with high quality training in a specific occupation would be a great help to many people. As the data continues to mount on the difficulties non-college graduates face navigating today’s tough economy, we need to rethink and re-engineer how students can advance toward a bachelor’s degree and beyond. That will mean challenging some traditional notions about the difference between “education” and “training” – an artificial distinction that has hampered efforts to meet the needs of diverse learners.

Students have already figured out they need a combination of practical skills and general knowledge, and that one does not come at the expense of the other. Now we need our higher education policies to catch up.

[1] Undergraduate certificates make up 25% of all undergraduate awards and NCES estimates that 60 percent of associate degree awards are in CTE fields. In 2012, this corresponded to just under 1.6 million awards, or forty percent of all undergraduate awards (certificates, associates, and bachelors). See Mary Alice McCarthy, “Beyond the Skills Gap: Making Education Work for Students, Employers, and Communities.” (Washington DC: New America, 2014), p.9.

[2] Bridging the Higher Education Divide: Strengthening Community Colleges and Restoring the American Dream: The Report of The Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal, (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 2013), 12.