In a recent post, I discussed a dubious proposal put forward in Ohio to award associates degrees to all university students who have simply completed a specified number of credit hours, regardless of the distribution of those credit hours [https://academeblog.org/2014/04/04/kent-state-university-announces-plans-to-increase-dramatically-the-number-of-associates-degrees-that-it-grants/].
A much more reasonable program has been initiated in Missouri, though to date the results have not been anything close to what the proponents of the program hoped to achieve with it.
In 2012, the Missouri legislature approved what it called a “reverse-transfer program.” Recognizing the need for the state to produce more degrees at all levels and looking for inexpensive ways to achieve that goal, the legislature considered the number of students who had earned well over the number of credit hours needed for an associates degree without receiving any degree.
Specifically, the legislation targets students who had earned at least fifteen credits at a community college in the state and had then transferred to a state university, where they had not completed a baccalaureate degree but where they had completed enough additional credits to possibly have earned an associates degree.
In 2013, this program was run on a pilot basis involving five community colleges and the five state universities that received the most transfer students from those community colleges. The results from the pilot program were not especially encouraging.
For instance, according to an article in the Springfield News-Leader, Missouri State University (MSU) identified 1,162 students who had transferred to MSU after completing at least 15 credit hours at Ozark Technical and Community College (OTC) and had then not completed a baccalaureate degree at MSU but had completed enough credits there to be possibly eligible for an associates degree from OTC. The distribution of those credits would, of course, determine whether the students would actually meet the requirements of a specific associates degree.
Because confidentiality laws prevent the institutions from sharing student records without the students’ permission, the university then had to contact the 1,162 students to see if they were interested in participating in the program. Only 11 expressed an interest, and of the 11, only five ended up being eligible for an associates degree.
Those results were largely replicated with each of the other four pairs of institutions participating in the pilot study. So, what had seemed like a fairly easy and inexpensive way to increase the total number of degrees awarded by state institutions turned out to be largely a bust.
Still, the state’s political and educational leaders did not give up on the program. In fact, despite the very disappointing results from the pilot program, they decided to extend the program to all state community colleges and universities, and they invited private colleges and universities to participate as well. To date, fifteen private institutions have signed on to the program, which was initiated statewide at the beginning of this 2013-2014 academic year.
No results have yet been announced, but this month the state did announce that it had applied for and received a $500,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation to support the program.
As well-intentioned as this sort of program may be, I cannot help but feel that it is ultimately just another effort by a state legislature to achieve educational results on the cheap. If such a program were undertaken at a time when state support for higher education was increasing or even being maintained, such skepticism would, perhaps, be less warranted. But when such a proposal is initiated when state support is being repeatedly cut even as there is added pressure to increase the number of degrees being granted, it invites skepticism.
Indeed, some of the early public and media reaction to the program has been very skeptical, and it has forced state officials responsible for the program to assert publicly that the state is not now “giving away” degrees. And, in truth, and in contrast to the more dubious plan put forward in Ohio, they clearly aren’t awarding degrees that have not been earned—albeit not necessarily intentionally.
But a gimmick is a gimmick, and it seems even more a gimmick when real, substantive solutions continue to be wanting.