Voices and Viewpoints

Community College Perspectives toward Applied Baccalaureate Degrees

by Maria Claudia Soler and Debra Bragg / Nov 24, 2014

This series of blog posts focuses on diverse stakeholder perspectives on the Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degree. These stakeholders are community college personnel, students, university personnel, employers, and state policy leaders. This is the second post in the series.

Imagine that you work at a community college and you are part of a committee to evaluate the potential implementation of Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degrees. What would you say? What kind of concerns or inclinations would you have regarding these degrees? Well, if you are unfamiliar with them, you might first want to understand how these degrees differ from other baccalaureate degrees, including why and how they emphasize applied learning outcomes. You might wonder if the spread of AB degrees across the U.S. is influenced by the forms that these degrees take, and how they are evolving. Because of the open-access mission of community colleges, you might want to understand how these programs affect student access and opportunity to complete the degree. You might also want to know whether AB degrees change institutional identity. Do they emphasize workforce-oriented curriculum to the exclusion of the liberal arts? These are questions that OCCRL’s research has addressed through grants from Lumina Foundation and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This blog highlights the perspectives of community college personnel on the potential for and the pitfalls of AB degrees.

AB Models and Degrees

Our research has uncovered the existence of several AB degree types. The Career Ladder degree type extends progressively advanced academic and technical coursework from the community college to the baccalaureate level (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). The Inverse or Upside Down degree type combines the first two years of associate-degree courses that are heavily focused on technical knowledge and skill development with upper-level baccalaureate content, primarily focused on general education. The Management degree type combines associate-degree coursework with upper-division baccalaureate coursework that prepares graduates for leadership and supervisory positions. Besides these types, we found AB degrees that were not easily classified in one of the aforementioned degree types. We referred to these degrees as Hybrid because they offer uniquely customized combinations of academic and technical coursework, often offered through online delivery.

Community College Perspectives

Considering these degree types, our research suggests the perspectives of community college personnel vary widely, from strongly supportive to deeply skeptical. Opinions of AB degrees reflect an appreciation among community college personnel for the ways in which the adoption of this degree type may yield anticipated and unanticipated complexities. Positive perspectives toward these degrees are reflected in the following points:

  • Expand access: Community college personnel perceive that, by adding AB degrees, community colleges increase access for nontraditional students who seek  to advance in jobs that provide higher wages and increased job security. During a recent roundtable led by OCCRL’s AB research team at the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigator’s Conference sponsored by the NSF, several community college practitioners mentioned that AB degrees increase employment opportunities for students. Thus, they appreciate AB programs because they perceive that they enhance students’ economic and social mobility.
  • Serve communities: An important aspect of the community college mission is to serve their communities by meeting the educational needs of their citizens (Mullin & Phillippe, 2013). According to community college practitioners, AB degrees that are offered by their institutions (rather than universities) retain local citizens and provide talent to the local marketplace that helps to sustain the economic vitality of their communities. Often serving place-bound students, AB degrees enroll citizens who seek to remain in their communities as employees, taxpayers, and contributing community members.
  • Meet local labor market needs: Related to the last point, community college personnel perceive that AB degrees are a solution to workforce skill shortages that require work-ready graduates who can apply knowledge and skills immediately. In our NSF case studies, “hands-on learning” and “real-world applications” are appreciated for their contribution to graduates’ workplace readiness. Also, working learners who populate many AB programs can transfer what they learn directly to their jobs, according to community college practitioners.

Concerns about AB degrees follow:

  • Identity and marketability concerns: OCCRL’s research suggests that use of the word “applied” in the title of AB degrees is attractive to employers, but detrimental to the marketability of the degree.  Some community college personnel think the meaning of the word is unclear or derogatory, leading some students who may be able to benefit from the programs to decline to enroll. Uncertainty about the value of this type of baccalaureate degree also raises concerns about its viability in the academy. Will graduates with AB degrees be admitted to graduate programs?
  • Cost and budgetary worries: Some community college personnel worry that community college baccalaureates (CCBs) will escalate costs at their already financially strapped schools. As part of our NSF research, community college administrators in Oklahoma said clarifying costs and budgetary strategies was an essential step to quelling faculty concerns about AB degrees. When college officials addressed faculty questions about how the institution would manage budgets relative to facilities, faculty, and support services, concerns lessened.
  • Institutional identity concerns: When some community colleges have begun to award AB degrees, they have dropped the word “community” from their title, largely to meet regional accreditation requirements. For some community college practitioners, this is troubling. No longer identifying their institutions as “community” colleges is a dreaded outcome of the adoption of AB degrees (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). From this perspective, personnel fear the AB degree will reduce the perceived value of their colleges to their local communities, potentially distancing them from student populations they have served historically.
  • Mission drift: Whether the AB degree changes institutional identity to the extent that mission drift is a valid claim is a concern to some. Juan Mejia, former vice president for Academic Affairs at South Texas College addressed this issue when he said, “We [South Texas College] do not refer to them as ‘community college baccalaureates’. Instead, the community college recognizes it as a baccalaureate degree that happens to be offered at the community college.” Mejia’s contention was that most community colleges that have adopted AB degrees have continued to focus on their core community college mission. The associate degree continues to be the primary degree type, with the AB degree complimenting rather than superseding the predominant associate-degree credential (Ruud & Bragg, 2011.

As this discussion of perspectives toward AB degrees suggests that, when community college personnel think about AB degrees, they consider their influence on community college mission, their costs and budgetary concerns, their impact on student access and success, and their responsiveness to local employers. As more states and institutions consider AB degrees, it is important to understand how perspectives held by community college personnel influence AB degree adoption and implementation.

Please share your thoughts on AB degrees. We are anxious to hear from you. Please use the comment field below to share your thoughts!


  • Mullin, C., & Phillippe, K. (2013). Community College Contributions (No. AACC Policy Brief 2013-01PB). American Association of Community Colleges. Retrieved from http://www.aacc.nche.edu/Publications/Briefs/Documents/2013PB_01.pdf
  • Ruud, C. M., & Bragg, D. D. (2011). The Applied Baccalaureate: What We Know, What We Learned, and What We Need to Know. Office of Community College Research and Leadership. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED521413

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. She can be reached at solersa2@illinois.edu

Debra Bragg, OCCRL director and Gutsgell Endowed professor at Illinois, researches the transition to college by youth and adults, especially student populations that have not attended college historically.

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