Voices and Viewpoints

Student Perspectives on the Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degree

by Maria Claudia Soler and Debra Bragg / Jan 14, 2015

This is the fifth 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.

Community colleges play a key role in providing open access to postsecondary education in the United States. Almost half of the U.S. undergraduate students attend community colleges, with representation by minority, low-income, and first-generation students higher compared to four-year colleges and universities (American Association of Community Colleges, 2014). Adult learners are also prevalent at community colleges, including students who are working, unemployed, or dislocated, as well as active military personnel (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). Many of these students have attended college but have failed to acquire sufficient credits to obtain a credential. For these individuals, a return to college to obtain skills and knowledge to obtain or advance in employment is imperative.

A number of factors are prompting the proliferation of Applied Baccalaureate (AB) degrees in the U.S., including the need to improve associate-to-baccalaureate degree transfer, to increase baccalaureate degree completion, to deliver instruction to non-traditional and underserved learners, and to align higher education to the workforce (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). By definition, the AB degree incorporates applied associate of science courses and degrees once considered as “terminal” or non-baccalaureate level, helping students develop higher-order thinking skills and to gain advanced technical knowledge and skills so desired in today’s job market (Townsend, Bragg, & Ruud, 2009). Because of their potential to widen access beyond traditional transfer baccalaureate-degree pathways, adoption of AB degree programs may provide a way for higher education to reach more undeserved populations, including full-time employed, place-bound learners (Ruud & Bragg, 2011).

Our research suggests students who have participated in AB degree programs tend to have a positive perspective toward AB degrees, highlighting their workforce relevance, flexible scheduling, affordable costs, and contribution to baccalaureate completion. We noted that some students also express concerns.  Mostly, they worry about whether the AB degrees will lead to the specific positions and promotions they are seeking, and whether the degrees will gain in acceptance and credibility. These perspectives are discussed below:

  • Workforce relevance: Generally, the content of AB programs of study is viewed as workforce oriented and well aligned with students’ interests in careers that require a bachelor’s degree, such as Information Technology (IT). Compared to general baccalaureate degrees, students perceive that ABs provide a highly relevant learning experience, and they value this aspect of the degrees (Ruud & Bragg, 2011). They also believe that the coursework associated with these degrees is relevant to the workforce, even if they do not have specific information about job placement.

  • Flexible scheduling: Many AB degree programs represent convenience of scheduling through online instruction, evening sessions, courses offered at work sites, and compressed scheduling (Grothe, 2009). This flexibility is especially convenient for learners who work and have other life commitments. Illustrating this point, an Ohio student who participated in an OCCRL focus group commented that the AB allowed him “a little bit more opportunity and flexibility, because my job…  sometimes I have to stay late; somebody’s called in sick, and we have day and night sessions. So it allows me a little bit more flexibility to meet all worlds.”

  • Affordability: Though not universally true, AB degrees may have lower tuition rates than traditional bachelor’s degrees. Also, because the programs are offered close to where students live and work, the cost of attendance is much lower than college-going that requires residence away from home. Further, some employers pay tuition and fees for their employees who are students in AB programs, especially when their education is linked to future advancement. AB students have told us lower cost represents a substantial advantage over traditional baccalaureate programs, sometimes making the difference in attending college, or not.

  • Increased baccalaureate attainment: An intriguing characteristic of many AB degrees is that they accept the transfer of all, or nearly all, credits from applied associate of science (AAS) degrees that, in the past, have been considered terminal (Makela, Rudd, Bennett, & Bragg, 2012). For students who graduate with technical associate degrees, AB degrees provide a pathway to pursue the baccalaureate without losing a substantial number of credits (Bragg et al., 2009). One student who participated in our study illustrates this point when s/he commented: “What’s nice about the Bachelor of Applied Technology degree is that I could take my electronics program, the credits from that, and apply it towards finishing the bachelor’s. And I guess, flexibility-wise, that’s nice.”

  • Credibility: Since AB degrees are relatively new, some students do express uncertainty about whether this new form of baccalaureate is marketable. Some students worry about tangible benefits, such as job opportunities and earnings. Demonstrating a concern for whether the AB studies will compliment work and lead to further employment, one student said: “You know, there’s always that concern. You always have to go through the screening process of your resume… You continue to work full-time and to gain that experience along with getting my degree in the hopes [that] they’ll also see that I have experience to back up that degree.”

Will AB students/graduates find good jobs related to their baccalaureate-level studies?  Will their investment of time and money lead to more opportunities for advancement and higher income, beyond the associate-degree level?

Join us in this discussion. Please use the comment field below to share your thoughts!  Stay tuned!


  • 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.
  • Makela, J., Rudd, C., Bennet, S., & Bragg, D. (2012). Investigating applied baccalaureate degree pathways in technitian 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
  • The White House. (2014). Building American skills through community colleges. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/education/higher-education/building-american-skills-through-community-colleges
  • 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 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 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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