Voices and Viewpoints

Employer Perspectives on the Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degree

by Maria Claudia Soler and Debra Bragg / Jan 9, 2015

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

More and more the American economy requires that workers have at least some postsecondary education or occupational training to secure living-wage jobs. Economists Carnevale, Smith & Strohl (2010) claim jobs are becoming more complex and requiring of more advanced skills in association with growth in middle-skills occupations. Others observe middle-skills jobs are growing, but employers are increasingly requiring the bachelor’s degree to fill jobs that previously required less than a bachelor’s degree (Burning Glass Technologies, 2014).  Referred to as upcredentialing, this phenomenon appears most prevalent in occupational fields where education and training is not as tightly coupled to licensing and certification. Whereas the Great recession may have fueled this trend, there is some evidence that this phenomenon was emerging despite the nation’s economic downturn.

As noted in our research, various stakeholder groups have commented favorably on the implementation of Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degrees, noting that these degrees can help fulfill unmet workforce needs while improving baccalaureate completion. The states of Florida, Arizona, and Washington implemented AB degrees to address workforce skill gaps in certain fields, healthcare, education, and technical fields. More recently, California has passed legislation allowing for implementation of an AB pilot program in community colleges in January 2015 (Block, 2014), indicating workforce needs create the need for additional baccalaureate degree graduates.

By incorporating applied associate of science courses and degrees once considered as “terminal” or non-baccalaureate level, AB degrees aim to provide students with advanced technical knowledge and skills desired in the labor market (Townsend, Bragg, & Ruud, 2009). But, what types of skills do employers need and demand? What input does business and industry have in the creation of AB degree programs?

These questions relate to employers’ perspectives toward AB degrees. A snapshot of these multiple perspectives is presented below:

  • The value of the applied baccalaureate: Among all stakeholder groups, employers are the least likely to express concern for the title “applied baccalaureate”. Illustrating this point, an Ohio employer observed that candidates with applied degrees are “basically the same” as graduates with traditional bachelors degrees. She added, “I never really looked into it too much to determine what the differences are”. However, since AB degrees are new in some states, it’s possible uncertainty about the meaning these degrees will emerge, but the preponderance of OCCRL’s data suggest concerns over the “applied baccalaureate” degree title is greater in the academy than in the workplace. A common observation that we have heard from employers is paraphrased as follows: Whether graduates can do the job is what matters, not the title of the degree.
  • Qualified workforce: Employers observe that AB degrees represent a means of addressing the needs of existing full-time and place-bound workers who seek to return to postsecondary education to pursue job advancement opportunities (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). Workers who seek a bachelor’s degree to advance in their careers represent a substantial proportion of the AB student population, and some of these students receive employer reimbursement for their successful completion of AB coursework.
  • Serve communities: AB degrees are seen as enabling local employers to retain citizens who wish to remain in their communities to pursue baccalaureate studies. By helping students attain credentials close to work and home, ABs provide talent to the local marketplace that helps to sustain the economic vitality of their communities. Employers mention this advantage to AB degrees, and many community college practitioners echo this sentiment.
  • Social mobility: Representing the social value of college education, an employer participating in OCCRL’s research emphasized that the AB degree “gives folks an opportunity who might not otherwise have an opportunity to attend a large state university or private university to obtain a baccalaureate degree”. Also recognizing that AB degrees may address the needs of unemployed workers, another employer suggested the AB degree is “a great way for people where they’ve been displaced to gain if they want to move [in a new] direction in terms of their career”.
  • Cross-sector collaborative relationships: Employers see value in building cooperative relationships with postsecondary institutions to align workforce needs in fields targeted for AB degrees. Representing this perspective, an Idaho employer remarked, AB degrees are a great strategy to “get the right people coming in the door at the right time with the right skills”. This may explain why AB programs of study appear to be proliferating in STEM fields, as well as in business- and management-related occupations with STEM employers (Makela, Rudd, Bennett, & Bragg, 2012).

As AB degree programs grow, will graduates of these programs fulfill workforce needs and demands? Will concerns about the degree fade as graduates find employment? Will demand for AB degrees grow if the relationship between higher education and the workforce strengthens?

We would love to hear from you. Please join us in the discussion!


  • Block, M. SB-850 Public postsecondary education: community college districts: baccalaureate degree pilot program, 850 SB § 78040 (2014). Retrieved from http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billStatusClient.xhtml
  • 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
  • Burning Glass Technologies. (2014). Moving the Goalposts: How Demand for a Bachelor’s Degree is Reshaping the Workforce. Boston, MA: Burning Glass Technologies. Retrieved from http://www.burning-glass.com/research/credentials-gap/
  • Carnevale, A., Smith, N. & Strohl, J. (2010) Help wanted. Projection of jobs and education requirements  through 2018. Georgetown University. Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from https://georgetown.app.box.com/s/ursjbxaym2np1v8mgrv7
  • Grothe, M. (2009). Employer and graduate perspectives of the Community College Applied Baccalaureate: Meeting the college Mission (Doctoral dissertation).  Available from Oregon State University Library.
  • National Commission on Adult Literacy. (2008). Rach higher, America: Overcoming crisis in the U.S. Workforce. Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.nationalcommissiononadultliteracy.org/ReachHigherAmerica/ReachHigher.pdf
  • Makela, J., Rudd, C., Bennett, S., & Bragg, D. (2012). Investigating applied baccalaureate degree pathways in technician 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
  • 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
  • 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


solerMaria 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-braggDebra 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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