Missouri Program Allows Students to Apply University Credits Retroactively toward an Associates Degree

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.


4 thoughts on “Missouri Program Allows Students to Apply University Credits Retroactively toward an Associates Degree

  1. One elephant in the room is, once again, the matter of formal advisement of students in colleges and universities. How is it that students earn sufficient credits to receive a degree yet do not have the appropriate distribution or otherwise qualify for a degree? How many students essentially receive no serious competent faculty advisement, “benefiting” instead from peer advisement programs and “professional” programs of advisement which are not run by faculty?

    Given the amount of debt the average American student incurs in the course of pursuing a higher education degree, such efforts as these might be a way of bringing approved closure status to institutions (including the for-profits) in the eyes of Federal loan program enforcers, etc. — as well as closure to individuals who may have experienced great personal trauma and financial tragedy born of poor advisement and other lack of serious assistance from higher education institutions while these students were matriculated.

    In short, there is more than one elephant in this room…..

    • Without arguing that inadequate advising is not a problem, I don’t think that that issue is especially relevant here.

      The program basically looks at students who started at a community college, earned at least 15 credit hours there, and then earned at least another 45 credit hours at a university without earning a baccalaureate degree. Someone then reviews the transcripts to see whether the credits that the students earned would have qualified them for any associates degree.

      In effect, students are being provided with a credential that they most likely never pursued and that they may have never even considered pursuing, but one that they, instead, have coincidentally earned.

      So, it is simply a matter of basic math that the more credit hours that a student has completed at the baccalaureate level, the more likely it will be that he or she will be eligible for some sort of an associates degree–the more likely it is that he or she will have coincidentally fulfilled all of the requirements for an associates degree.

      So a student who failed to complete a baccalaureate degree in psychology might very well qualify for an associates degree in psychology, but, depending on what courses he or she took to fulfill core requirements and as electives, he or she might, instead, qualify for an associates degree in history, in English, in criminal justice, or in computer applications–or for a more generic associates of arts, associates of science, or technical associates degree.

      Since it is spring-projects time, I’ll offer this analogy. It’s kind of like gradually buying the materials to build a backyard shed, losing interest in the project, and then seeing what else you might build from the materials that you have bought: that something else might be a smaller equivalent of a backyard shed, such as a doghouse, or it might be something else entirely, such as a couple of picnic tables with benches or a set of box planters.

      • The original posting stresses that, in Ohio, just the number of credits earned would be sufficient for the awarding of an associate degree. For the other implementations of this idea, the distribution of credits would be considered.

        Thus, advisement still plays a role in the majority of the implementations because, of course, students should always be able to receive whatever degrees they have qualified for and advisement has apparently not always identified all potential awardees. The problem with the spring projects analogy is that it exhibits a disdain for the “lower credential” of associate degree, relegating it to a “dog house” against the “standard” of the baccalaureate “house.” For many students the cost-effectiveness of the community college experience is paramount yet, indeed, transfers to 4-yr and university institutions are often effectuated with a kind of stigma attached, even moreso when the student later seeks admission to graduate programs.

        Further, personal experience has shown that even for traditional baccalaureate programs, poor advisement has denied students graduation on the distribution, etc. requirements when enough or more than enough overall credits have been earned. Funneling students into Equal Opportunity Programs for advisement has sometimes proven to be a disservice as non-faculty advisors can easily make mistakes in advising students in their major field. Faculty should perform advisement of all students not as a chore to be avoided and quickly disposed of but as a core role in their mission as educators. Oddly enough, faculty are rarely trained in advisement — yet another factor in the sad state of degree completion rates.

        Moreover, outside of Ohio, for those institutions which do not normally grant associate degrees, the “importation” of the associate degree to the roster would appear to have many possible administrative motives, not the least of which is, in the case of for-profits with high drop-out rates as well as traditional colleges and universities: an increase in the proportion of students who have completed degrees of whatever kind improves the institution’s scores with DOED on student loan and degree completion rates and affects the institution’s financial scoring overall as well. Thus, the “doghouse” of the analogy above would appear to be that built for the administrators and not the students….

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