The Columbus Dispatch recently reported that Kent State University is planning to grant an associates degree to any student who completes 60 credit hours, or about half of the credit hours needed for most baccalaureate degrees.
Apparently the university will create a generic associates degree for this purpose.
In addition to its main campus in Kent, Ohio, the university has the most extensive system of regional campuses of any university in the state. There are seven regional campuses in the Kent system, stretching from the northeast corner of the state and the shores of Lake Erie to the Amish region just north of I-70, which runs west to east across the entire state, passing through Dayton at the western end of the state and Columbus in the center. Kent State’s seven regional campuses are the Ashtabula, East Liverpool, Geauga, Salem, Stark, Trumbull, and Tuscarawas campuses.
At those regional campuses, the university has always awarded associates degrees. Ohio’s two dozen regional campuses are treated as colleges within nine of the state universities. Established during the 1960s and early 1970s, the regional university campuses initially offered selected technical programs, comparable to those typically offered at technical and community colleges, as well pre-baccalaureate coursework for students transferring in their third year to the main campuses of the universities. Over the past two decades, the university regional campuses have phased out many of the more “blue-collar” technical programs and have increased the number of baccalaureate degrees that can be completed entirely on the regional campuses.
So, the Kent campus’s announcement that it plans to start awarding associates degrees runs counter to the gradual and ongoing shift at the regional campuses away from an emphasis on associates degrees and toward a greater emphasis on baccalaureate degrees. And it is therefore hardly surprising that many questions would be raised about the rationale for such a plan.
In its funding formulas, the state of Ohio has been placing increased emphasis on completion rates, rather than on enrollments. A spokesperson for Kent State explained that in contrast to a student in an associates-degree program, a student in a baccalaureate program who completes two or more years of coursework without completing the degree has nothing to show for the completed work—even if it equals or exceeds what would have been required for an associates degree. Therefore, awarding an associates degree when a student completes half of the credit hours required for a baccalaureate degree will provide the student with a credential that may be of some value in gaining employment. The credential would seem, unarguably, to be of more value than no credential whatsoever.
Critics of the Kent State plan have noted, however, that it seems more a cynical response to a proposed change in the state’s funding formula than a thoughtful response to genuine student needs. That change in the state’s funding formula would have provided increased subsidy for students who first completed associates degrees and then went on to complete baccalaureate degrees. But the lawmakers who drafted the proposal saw a benefit in encouraging the completion of more associates degrees that would enable students to secure employment in specific industries or with specific service providers, whether or not the students should then choose to continue their educations and to pursue baccalaureate degrees. For instance, a student awarded an associates degree in computer applications would be qualified for some entry-level technology jobs, even if he or she would not be qualified for the same kinds of positions for which a graduate with a baccalaureate degree in computer science might apply. In contrast, in awarding the associates degree simply because some designated number of credit hours has been completed, Kent State, or any other university, would not necessarily be providing the student with a credential with any sort of comparable marketability.
Indeed, although nothing has yet been finalized, the Kent State announcement seems to have provoked considerable reconsideration of the proposed change in the state funding formula.
During an extended period in which the state has continued to reduce its funding of public colleges and universities, it is very unlikely that changes in the funding formula will be tied to significantly increased total funding. The state’s community colleges have already absorbed higher reductions in funding than the universities. So the administrations of the community colleges are understandably alarmed at the possibility that the slice of the funding pie reserved for associates degrees might now have to be shared proportionately with the universities, which will almost certainly have a larger number of students receiving associates degrees simply for completing 60 credit hours than the number of graduates that the community colleges will be able to produce from carefully designed associates programs with more strictly defined requirements. Not surprisingly, the administrations of the community colleges are pointedly asking the state legislature to consider the efficacy of associates degrees that are tied simply to the completion of a certain number of credit hours.
Of course, this whole episode has served to highlight the hazards of trying to achieve dramatic increases in degree-completion rates without any proportionate increase in public investment. It serves to highlight the almost inevitable erosion of standards that will occur when a funding formula rewards the quantity of graduates without giving considerable weight to the quality of the programs from which they are graduating. It serves to highlight the destructive expediency of state governments dominated by the Far Right. Since their ideology places very little value on public education at any level, these politicians are all too willing to undermine standards in order to produce results that will have more political than economic value. Under the guise of increasing efficiencies and accountability, they are conning people into believing that standards can be maintained and even increased while every gimmick available is employed to provide instruction and to produce graduate as cheaply and as quickly as possible.
So, although I would like to believe that the Kent State announcement may have been intended to highlight and to undermine the absurdities in the destructive directions that higher education is being taken, I suspect that the Kent State administration may simply have abandoned the pretense of trying to resist the many incentives for being as mercenary as possible.