Recent Blog Posts

Community College Perspectives toward Applied Baccalaureate Degrees


This series of blog posts focuses on diverse stakeholder perspectives on the Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degree. These stakeholders are community college personnel, students, university personnel, employers, and state policy leaders. This is the second post in the series. You can read the first post here.


Imagine that you work at a community college and you are part of a committee to evaluate the potential implementation of Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degrees. What would you say? What kind of concerns or inclinations would you have regarding these degrees? Well, if you are unfamiliar with them, you might first want to understand how these degrees differ from other baccalaureate degrees, including why and how they emphasize applied learning outcomes. You might wonder if the spread of AB degrees across the U.S. is influenced by the forms that these degrees take, and how they are evolving. Because of the open-access mission of community colleges, you might want to understand how these programs affect student access and opportunity to complete the degree. You might also want to know whether AB degrees change institutional identity. Do they emphasize workforce-oriented curriculum to the exclusion of the liberal arts? These are questions that OCCRL’s research has addressed through grants from Lumina Foundation and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This blog highlights the perspectives of community college personnel on the potential for and the pitfalls of AB degrees.

AB Models and Degrees

Our research has uncovered the existence of several AB degree types. The Career Ladder degree type extends progressively advanced academic and technical coursework from the community college to the baccalaureate level (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). The Inverse or Upside Down degree type combines the first two years of associate-degree courses that are heavily focused on technical knowledge and skill development with upper-level baccalaureate content, primarily focused on general education. The Management degree type combines associate-degree coursework with upper-division baccalaureate coursework that prepares graduates for leadership and supervisory positions. Besides these types, we found AB degrees that were not easily classified in one of the aforementioned degree types. We referred to these degrees as Hybrid because they offer uniquely customized combinations of academic and technical coursework, often offered through online delivery.

Community College Perspectives

Considering these degree types, our research suggests the perspectives of community college personnel vary widely, from strongly supportive to deeply skeptical. Opinions of AB degrees reflect an appreciation among community college personnel for the ways in which the adoption of this degree type may yield anticipated and unanticipated complexities. Positive perspectives toward these degrees are reflected in the following points:

  • Expand access: Community college personnel perceive that, by adding AB degrees, community colleges increase access for nontraditional students who seek  to advance in jobs that provide higher wages and increased job security. During a recent roundtable led by OCCRL’s AB research team at the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigator’s Conference sponsored by the NSF, several community college practitioners mentioned that AB degrees increase employment opportunities for students. Thus, they appreciate AB programs because they perceive that they enhance students’ economic and social mobility.
  • Serve communities: An important aspect of the community college mission is to serve their communities by meeting the educational needs of their citizens (Mullin & Phillippe, 2013). According to community college practitioners, AB degrees that are offered by their institutions (rather than universities) retain local citizens and provide talent to the local marketplace that helps to sustain the economic vitality of their communities. Often serving place-bound students, AB degrees enroll citizens who seek to remain in their communities as employees, taxpayers, and contributing community members.
  • Meet local labor market needs: Related to the last point, community college personnel perceive that AB degrees are a solution to workforce skill shortages that require work-ready graduates who can apply knowledge and skills immediately. In our NSF case studies, “hands-on learning” and “real-world applications” are appreciated for their contribution to graduates’ workplace readiness. Also, working learners who populate many AB programs can transfer what they learn directly to their jobs, according to community college practitioners.

Concerns about AB degrees follow:

  • Identity and marketability concerns: OCCRL’s research suggests that use of the word “applied” in the title of AB degrees is attractive to employers, but detrimental to the marketability of the degree.  Some community college personnel think the meaning of the word is unclear or derogatory, leading some students who may be able to benefit from the programs to decline to enroll. Uncertainty about the value of this type of baccalaureate degree also raises concerns about its viability in the academy. Will graduates with AB degrees be admitted to graduate programs?
  • Cost and budgetary worries: Some community college personnel worry that community college baccalaureates (CCBs) will escalate costs at their already financially strapped schools. As part of our NSF research, community college administrators in Oklahoma said clarifying costs and budgetary strategies was an essential step to quelling faculty concerns about AB degrees. When college officials addressed faculty questions about how the institution would manage budgets relative to facilities, faculty, and support services, concerns lessened.
  • Institutional identity concerns: When some community colleges have begun to award AB degrees, they have dropped the word “community” from their title, largely to meet regional accreditation requirements. For some community college practitioners, this is troubling. No longer identifying their institutions as “community” colleges is a dreaded outcome of the adoption of AB degrees (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). From this perspective, personnel fear the AB degree will reduce the perceived value of their colleges to their local communities, potentially distancing them from student populations they have served historically.
  • Mission drift: Whether the AB degree changes institutional identity to the extent that mission drift is a valid claim is a concern to some. Juan Mejia, former vice president for Academic Affairs at South Texas College addressed this issue when he said, “We [South Texas College] do not refer to them as ‘community college baccalaureates’. Instead, the community college recognizes it as a baccalaureate degree that happens to be offered at the community college.” Mejia’s contention was that most community colleges that have adopted AB degrees have continued to focus on their core community college mission. The associate degree continues to be the primary degree type, with the AB degree complimenting rather than superseding the predominant associate-degree credential (Ruud & Bragg, 2011.

As this discussion of perspectives toward AB degrees suggests that, when community college personnel think about AB degrees, they consider their influence on community college mission, their costs and budgetary concerns, their impact on student access and success, and their responsiveness to local employers. As more states and institutions consider AB degrees, it is important to understand how perspectives held by community college personnel influence AB degree adoption and implementation.

Please share your thoughts on AB degrees. We are anxious to hear from you. Please use the comment field below to share your thoughts!


Mullin, C., & Phillippe, K. (2013). Community College Contributions (No. AACC Policy Brief 2013-01PB). American Association of Community Colleges. Retrieved from

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

MariaMaria Claudia Soler is 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



dbraggthumbDebra 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.

Reverse Transfer: Questions Emerging from an ASHE Symposium

CWIDLast Friday, we participated in a symposium on Credit When It’s Due at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) in Washington, DC. The session titled, “Reverse Transfer:  Research and Policy on the Front Lines” featured Daniela Pineda (chair); Debra Bragg, Christopher Baldwin, Patricia Farrell-Cole, Marilyn Amey, Sarah Rose Fitzgerald, and Jason Taylor (panelists), and Tatiana Melguizo (discussant). Exploring the national initiative and using Michigan as a case, the panelists and audience of researchers raised a number of questions that deserve attention.

Recognizing that the number of students who have taken advantage of reverse transfer associate degrees has fallen short of expectations thus far, the following questions were raised that need further study:

  • “Reverse transfer” is a confusing term to many students. Can this concept be redefined to make it more comprehensible?
  • What can state systems and institutions do to make reverse transfer more attractive to students and reach more students?
  • Is an associate’s degree valuable enough to attract students to pursue it while pursuing their bachelor’s degree?
  • What are the benefits of a reverse transfer associate’s degree to students and institutions?
  • Ultimately, is reverse transfer good policy?

We welcome your thoughts on reverse transfer.  Please share your comments below.


Debra D. Bragg is the principal investigator of Credit When It’s Due (CWID) Research, OCCRL director, and Gutsgell Endowed professor at Illinois.


JasonJason L. Taylor is co-principal investigator of CWID Research and an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Utah and team.

Assessing Affective Factors to Improve Retention and Completion

Terry ObanionAssessing students to determine the courses into which they should be placed for success is one of the key actions we take in community colleges.  In recent years researchers have told us that multiple measures—including assessments of the affective domain—can significantly improve our efforts.  In this paper, Ross Markle, a Senior Researcher at Educational Testing Service, and I set the context for the value of affective measures and cite several examples of how they can improve the placement of students to better ensure higher retention and completion rates.

Read Assessing Affective Factors to Improve Retention and Completion.

Terry O’Banion is President Emeritus, League for Innovation, and Chair of the Graduate Faculty, National American University. He welcomes responses at

Applied Baccalaureate Degrees: What do they mean for each stakeholder?

This is the first in a series of blog posts on stakeholders’ perspectives on the AB degree by community colleges, students, universities, employers, and the state policy perspective.


What if there was a new path to increasing students’ chances of obtaining a baccalaureate degree? And what if this option was not only flexible and relatively affordable but it had potential to meet workforce demands? You might first conclude that this sounds too good to be true, but in reality, for some people and in some states, such as Florida, Texas, and Washington, this path is the APPLIED BACCALAUREATE (AB) DEGREE.  For many, the AB degree is a new idea, and it is a controversial. The AB is an alternative degree that needs to be considered carefully because it can entail issues of mission creep, budgeting, and lack of prestige. With so little known about the degree, OCCRL sought to research these degrees to understand their impact on community colleges, and this led to our developing this series of blogs. Our research shows perspectives about the AB vary depending on the stakeholder. Students, community college personnel, university personnel, employers, and state policy officials perceive and define these degrees differently. They have contrasting views on whether the AB degree can be beneficial, and how concerns and challenges can be addressed.

What is an AB degree?

Using the definition of Townsend, Bragg, & Ruud (2009) we consider an AB degree as “a bachelor’s degree designed to incorporate applied associate courses and degrees once considered as “terminal” or non-baccalaureate level while providing students with higher-order thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge and skills so desired in today’s job market”. The offering of baccalaureate degrees at community colleges is controversial, but it is also intriguing that states like California merited them more study and passed legislation in August to conduct an AB degree pilot program in 15 community colleges (Block, 2014).

So what it is going on with AB degrees?

OCCRL’s AB research team travelled to Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago to present research findings on AB degrees at the Advanced Technological Education (NSF) Principal Investigators Conference sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). (The NSF, ATE program funds this research on the AB degrees.) Although some discussions and impressions of this conference will be incorporated in the following blog posts, according to the stakeholder emphasized in each blog, we want to highlight three conceptual elements from our experience. The first is that AB degrees are evolving; we do not know a lot about AB degree models yet. During the ATE NSF conference, several practitioners showed interest in understanding other states where AB degrees are implemented, and our “Adult Learner and the Applied Baccalaureate: Lessons from Six States” study was a good way to start the discussion because it presents case studies of AB degrees in six states: Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington. We also know that there are different models for awarding baccalaureate degree credit, including enhanced articulation, university centers, university extensions, and the community college (Floyd, Skolnik, & Walker, 2005), and that states play a gatekeeping role in authorizing AB degrees. This is especially observable in the community college model. But the differences do not end there. Different types of AB degrees are associated with the career pathway, management, inverse, and hybrid models (Bragg, Townsend, & Ruud, 2009). However, even knowing this, what we know about AB degree models, programs, and practices is limited. Collecting and disseminating information about these degrees is important, including knowing what different stakeholder’s perceive of them. As Bragg et al. (2009) suggest, understanding perceptions can help other stakeholders gain a fuller and deeper understanding of AB degree programs offered in various postsecondary institutional contexts.

The second element is that there is not one single and fixed perspective that summarizes each stakeholder perception because perspectives of AB degrees can vary for different members in each stakeholder group. For example, while some community college practitioners from California who attended the ATE NSF conference showed interest in being selected for the pilot study that is beginning soon in that state, a few others expressed skepticism. These contrasts in opinion are usually related to different perceptions in the purpose that AB degrees should follow. For instance, while some students see AB degrees as an excellent opportunity to complete a baccalaureate degree given the flexibility in scheduling, others are concerned because of the lack of prestige associated with the fact that these degrees are relatively new. Recognizing these contrasts and understanding that they are part of the process through which new meanings are negotiated has been an important assumption in our study of AB degrees.

The third element is that perceptions that different stakeholders have about AB degrees can vary across time and depending on their shifts, they may influence how, when, and where AB degrees are implemented, and vice versa.  Perceptions, and more importantly, the analysis of early experiences associated with pilots helped states like Washington to reach full-scale implementation. Going back to the California case, while AB degrees legislations did not pass in previous years, its approval in August 2014 was influenced by changes in the perception of a study group. The group analyzed the case and instead of rejecting it, concluded that the offering of baccalaureates by the California community colleges merited serious review and discussion by the Chancellor and the Board of Governors (California Community College Study Group, 2014). A legislation to conduct a pilot study was passed some months after that report. In our research we found that although controversial, AB degrees align well with policy agendas that link higher education to workforce development. If these perceptions are so influential in the implementation of policy, then the study of their patterns and connections with other policy decisions warrants further attention.

AB degrees emerge “at the right time and in the right place for each particular state or institution” (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). Exploring and documenting perceptions about AB degrees may provide insights into deeper questions central to the future of higher education, including which students should be served and how, what the value is of college credit and degrees, and how diverse institutions can operate more effectively and efficiently as a higher education system (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). This series of blogs will attempt to document perceptions of AB degrees that emerge from our research, but we would like to hear your perceptions. Please join us in this discussion; we would love to hear your thoughts! Our next post focuses on perceptions of AB degrees held by community college personnel. Please stay posted!


Block, M. SB-850 Public postsecondary education: community college districts: baccalaureate degree pilot program, 850 SB § 78040 (2014). Retrieved from

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

California Community College Study Group. (2014). Report from California community colleges baccalaureate degree study group. California. Retrieved from

Floyd, D., Skolnik, M., & Walker, K. (2005). Community College Baccalaureate: Emerging Trends and Policy Issues. Presented at the The Community College Baccalaureate Association. Retrieved from

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


MariaMaria Claudia Soler is 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.


OCCRL Featured Evaluator: Tara Donahue

This post is part of a new blog series called Transformative Change Initiative (TCI) Featured Evaluator, that includes interviews with members of TCI’s Evaluation Collaborative. This community of evaluators has a wealth of knowledge, experience and insights into evaluation of the TAACCCT grants that are being implementation throughout the United States. Want to be profiled or know someone who would make a great feature? Email us at

DonahueTara2011Name: Tara Donahue

Current position: Managing Evaluator

Bio: Tara Donahue, Ph.D., managing evaluator, performs a variety of functions at McREL International.  She conceptualizes, manages, and conducts research and evaluation projects on several different education-related programs. Examples of her work at McREL include managing the external evaluation of an Investing in Innovation (i3) grant focused on improving college and career readiness in six high schools in Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, KY), overseeing two Teacher Quality Partnership evaluation projects in Kentucky and Virginia, and leading the evaluation of two Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grants in Missouri and Tennessee. Additionally, Tara leads proposal writing teams on content development, evaluation design, and budgets for submission to a wide variety of clients and funding sources, such as the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the National Science Foundation.  Tara has had papers accepted and has presented at the American Evaluation Association and American Education Research Association, where her team won a Publication Award from Division H in 2014.  Tara holds a B.A. in English and psychology from Vanderbilt University and a Ph.D. in educational policy from Michigan State University.

Q. What is the design and predominant methods for your TAACCCT evaluation?

A. The TAACCCT evaluations use a quasi-experimental design, with comparison groups coming from both other institutions and historical cohorts. Predominant methods include conducting interviews and administering surveys with a variety of stakeholders, including project staff, partners, and students. Outcome data, supplied by the colleges, are used to help the colleges meet Department of Labor reporting requirements and to address other evaluation questions the colleges may want to address through their project. TAACCCT evaluations also have an intensive fidelity of implementation project to help them gauge the extent to which they have implemented the project according to their plan.  When changes are made, the evaluation team documents how and why.

Q. What stands out as major accomplishments so far?

A. Although the evaluations are in the early stages, there have been several accomplishment thus far. First, great conversations have begun to determine what critical evaluation questions need to be asked and how those questions will be answered. Second, partnerships with the data coordinators at the colleges have been established to facilitate transmission of the school’s data to the evaluation team.  Third, strong relationships between the evaluation team and the project team have encouraged brainstorming and flexibility in approaching survey administration from a variety of ways to increase response rates.

 Q. What advice do you have for new TAACCCT evaluators?

A. Major accomplishments thus far are based on key communication strategies. Start as early in the process as possible to make sure clear lines of communication are established. Be clear and concise in what is being communicated.  For many project staff, this is the first time that they have worked with an external evaluator and expectations need to be made clear at the beginning.

When meeting with project staff and stakeholders, make sure to clearly explain the purpose of the evaluation and why it is necessary.  Focus on continuous improvement—a primary objective of the evaluation is to examine project strengths and weaknesses and to help project staff implement strategies to shore up any areas that may not be as strong.  Again, because this may be a new process for some staff, they may need to go slowly to fully understand the process and the intention behind it.

Q. What questions do you have for others about TAACCCT evaluation?

A. What strategies have been implemented to increase survey response rates for students? What challenges have you faced in developing relationships with workforce partners and having access to state employment databases? How have those challenges been resolved?

You can reach Tara at and learn more about McRel International at