Voices and Viewpoints

University Perspectives on the Applied Baccalaureate (AB)

by Maria Claudia Soler and Debra Bragg / Dec 8, 2014

This is the third in a series of blog posts that focuses on diverse stakeholder perspectives on the ABdegree. The perspectives we are sharing represent the following groups: community college personnel, students, university personnel, employers, and state policy leaders.

In his research about organizational culture in higher education, William Tierney (1988) asserts that even the most experienced college and university administrators ask themselves the question: “What holds this place together?” (p. 3). He adds that, in the process of looking for answers, especially in moments of frustration or resistance, administrators ask whether the answer to this question lies in the university mission, in its values, in its bureaucratic procedures, or in its strong personalities.

Similar questions are asked among university personnel who are contemplating the applied baccalaureate (AB) degree. The research conducted by Makela, Rudd, Bennett, and Bragg (2012) points out that, despite the role that AB degrees may play in increasing access to college and possibly also increasing college completion, AB degrees face considerable criticism. Whereas personnel associated with some baccalaureate degree-granting (universities) offer and support AB degrees, others express concern about their role in mission creep, escalating costs, and disruptions to long-established policies and procedures surrounding higher education curriculum and credentialing. Research conducted by OCCRL on ABs has documented these concerns and continues to understand their impact on adoption and implementation.

The goal of this blog is to summarize perspectives held by university personnel who have participated in our qualitative research. A snapshot of a diversity of perspectives of university personnel follows:

  • Response to workforce education shortages: Currently, a much larger number of ABs are offered by predominantly baccalaureate-granting institutions (universities) than community colleges (Townsend, Bragg, & Ruud, 2009), although community college ABs capture more attention in the media. Since the vast majority of AB degrees seek to prepare students for employment, ABs awarded by universities tend to be focused on meeting labor market needs as well. Given the comprehensive curriculum offerings of many universities, the offering of AB degrees raises questions about the role of occupational-technical education at the university level. This case is exemplified in Arizona where a perceived workforce shortage of personnel in fire service management led to the implementation of AB degrees in universities (Bragg, Townsend, & Ruud, 2009).
  • Perceived mission creep when ABs are offered by community colleges: Some university personnel worry that the offering of ABs by community colleges may result in changes to the fundamental missions of these institutions. The comprehensive mission of community colleges involves other missions related to developmental education, adult education, and transfer education (Ruud & Bragg, 2011), and these functions are valued. How will these functions fair when community colleges award AB degrees? Will the baccalaureate function begin to overshadow the other functions? Also, will community college ABs threaten the open-access mission of these schools, leading to selective admission that narrows or eliminates access to higher education for underserved student populations?
  • The expense of ABs: Some university administrators present funding arguments as rationale for offering the degrees at the university (rather than community college) level. For instance, implementation of ABs has been restricted to the university in Arizona to prevent an overall budget increase to the higher education system. In this state and others, university personnel claim legislators would be unlikely to support new AB degrees in community colleges due to already tight budgets for higher education (Bragg et al., 2009). Along this line, the Academic Senate of The California State University (2014) offered that “the current limiting factor in offering or expanding applied baccalaureate [AB] degrees is the underfunding of higher education, rather than a deliberate decision by the CSU not to offer or expand such degrees”.
  • Visibility for community colleges: Many university personnel admit they don’t have deep knowledge of community colleges.  They do not give them a lot of attention unless an issue emerges that catches their eye (Bragg, as cited as Marcus, 2014). Undoubtedly, the offering of AB degrees by community colleges has captured the attention of university personnel (administration and faculty). A sizeable number of university personnel worry that ABs will affect their enrollments and their curriculum offerings. A few mention concerns about student outcomes. In the best of cases, dialogue about ABs among university and community college personnel has strengthened transfer and articulation processes. In the worst of cases, tensions have increased and relationships have worsened.

Join us in this discussion! Your opinion will enrich this series of blogs and we want to know your thoughts. The next post focuses on perceptions of AB degrees held by students. Stay tuned!


  • Bragg, D. D., Townsend, B. K., & Ruud, C. M. (2009). The adult learner and the applied baccalaureate: Emerging lessons for state and local implementation. In Brief. Office of Community College Research and Leadership. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED504447
  • Marcus, J. (2014). Why even top tier students should consider community colleges. PBS Newshour. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/revenge-community-college/
  • Panke, J., Rudd, C., Bennet, S., & Bragg, D. (2012). Investigating applied baccalaureate degree pathways in technitian education: Technical report. Champaign, IL: Office of Community College  Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved from http://occrl.illinois.edu/files/Projects/nsf_ab/NSF-AB-Tech-Report-2012.pdf
  • The California State University. (2014). Concerns regarding proposed legislation authorizing community college baccalaureate degrees. Retrieved from http://www.calstate.edu/acadsen/Records/Resolutions/2013-2014/documents/3163.shtml
  • Tierney, W. G. (1988). Organizational culture in higher education: Defining the essentials. The Journal of Higher Education, 59(1), 2–21. doi:10.2307/1981868
  • Townsend, B. K., Bragg, D. D., & Ruud, C. M. (2009). Development of the applied baccalaureate. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 33(9), 686–705. doi:10.1080/10668920902983601

Maria Claudia Soleris 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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