Voices and Viewpoints

Applied Baccalaureate Degrees: What do they mean for each stakeholder?

by Maria Claudia Soler / Nov 14, 2014

This is the first in a series of blog posts on stakeholders’ perspectives on the AB degree by community colleges, students, universities, employers, and the state policy perspective.

What if there was a new path to increasing students’ chances of obtaining a baccalaureate degree? And what if this option was not only flexible and relatively affordable but it had potential to meet workforce demands? You might first conclude that this sounds too good to be true, but in reality, for some people and in some states, such as Florida, Texas, and Washington, this path is the APPLIED BACCALAUREATE (AB) DEGREE.  For many, the AB degree is a new idea, and it is a controversial. The AB is an alternative degree that needs to be considered carefully because it can entail issues of mission creep, budgeting, and lack of prestige. With so little known about the degree, OCCRL sought to research these degrees to understand their impact on community colleges, and this led to our developing this series of blogs. Our research shows perspectives about the AB vary depending on the stakeholder. Students, community college personnel, university personnel, employers, and state policy officials perceive and define these degrees differently. They have contrasting views on whether the AB degree can be beneficial, and how concerns and challenges can be addressed.

What is an AB degree?

Using the definition of Townsend, Bragg, & Ruud (2009) we consider an AB degree as “a bachelor’s degree designed to incorporate applied associate courses and degrees once considered as “terminal” or non-baccalaureate level while providing students with higher-order thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge and skills so desired in today’s job market”. The offering of baccalaureate degrees at community colleges is controversial, but it is also intriguing that states like California merited them more study and passed legislation in August to conduct an AB degree pilot program in 15 community colleges (Block, 2014).

So what it is going on with AB degrees?

OCCRL’s AB research team travelled to Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago to present research findings on AB degrees at the Advanced Technological Education (NSF) Principal Investigators Conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). (The NSF, ATE program funds this research on the AB degrees.) Although some discussions and impressions of this conference will be incorporated in the following blog posts, according to the stakeholder emphasized in each blog, we want to highlight three conceptual elements from our experience. The first is that AB degrees are evolving; we do not know a lot about AB degree models yet. During the ATE NSF conference, several practitioners showed interest in understanding other states where AB degrees are implemented, and our “Adult Learner and the Applied Baccalaureate: Lessons from Six States” study was a good way to start the discussion because it presents case studies of AB degrees in six states: Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington. We also know that there are different models for awarding baccalaureate degree credit, including enhanced articulation, university centers, university extensions, and the community college (Floyd, Skolnik, & Walker, 2005), and that states play a gatekeeping role in authorizing AB degrees. This is especially observable in the community college model. But the differences do not end there. Different types of AB degrees are associated with the career pathway, management, inverse, and hybrid models (Bragg, Townsend, & Ruud, 2009). However, even knowing this, what we know about AB degree models, programs, and practices is limited. Collecting and disseminating information about these degrees is important, including knowing what different stakeholder’s perceive of them. As Bragg et al. (2009) suggest, understanding perceptions can help other stakeholders gain a fuller and deeper understanding of AB degree programs offered in various postsecondary institutional contexts.

The second element is that there is not one single and fixed perspective that summarizes each stakeholder perception because perspectives of AB degrees can vary for different members in each stakeholder group. For example, while some community college practitioners from California who attended the ATE NSF conference showed interest in being selected for the pilot study that is beginning soon in that state, a few others expressed skepticism. These contrasts in opinion are usually related to different perceptions in the purpose that AB degrees should follow. For instance, while some students see AB degrees as an excellent opportunity to complete a baccalaureate degree given the flexibility in scheduling, others are concerned because of the lack of prestige associated with the fact that these degrees are relatively new. Recognizing these contrasts and understanding that they are part of the process through which new meanings are negotiated has been an important assumption in our study of AB degrees.

The third element is that perceptions that different stakeholders have about AB degrees can vary across time and depending on their shifts, they may influence how, when, and where AB degrees are implemented, and vice versa.  Perceptions, and more importantly, the analysis of early experiences associated with pilots helped states like Washington to reach full-scale implementation. Going back to the California case, while AB degrees legislations did not pass in previous years, its approval in August 2014 was influenced by changes in the perception of a study group. The group analyzed the case and instead of rejecting it, concluded that the offering of baccalaureates by the California community colleges merited serious review and discussion by the Chancellor and the Board of Governors (California Community College Study Group, 2014). A legislation to conduct a pilot study was passed some months after that report. In our research we found that although controversial, AB degrees align well with policy agendas that link higher education to workforce development. If these perceptions are so influential in the implementation of policy, then the study of their patterns and connections with other policy decisions warrants further attention.

AB degrees emerge “at the right time and in the right place for each particular state or institution” (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). Exploring and documenting perceptions about AB degrees may provide insights into deeper questions central to the future of higher education, including which students should be served and how, what the value is of college credit and degrees, and how diverse institutions can operate more effectively and efficiently as a higher education system (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). This series of blogs will attempt to document perceptions of AB degrees that emerge from our research, but we would like to hear your perceptions. Please join us in this discussion; we would love to hear your thoughts! Our next post focuses on perceptions of AB degrees held by community college personnel. Please stay posted!


Maria Claudia Soler is a PhD student in the Education Policy, Organization and Leadership program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Research Assistant for OCCRL. solersa2@illinois.edu

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