About Applied Baccalaureate Degrees

What is an Applied Baccalaureate (AB) Degree?

Postsecondary degree designations in American higher education fall into several categories based on curricular design and transfer relationships between associate degree and baccalaureate degree level coursework.

Categories of Postsecondary Degrees in American Higher Education

Degree Description Example
Transfer Associate Degree program consisting of liberal and academic coursework that is transferable to baccalaureate degree programs. Associate of Arts (AA) Associate of Science (AS)
Applied Associate Degree program that emphasizes applied coursework, often through contextualized instruction, that encourages direct applicability to the workforce. These degree programs often have roots in career and technical education that has been considered terminal (nontransferable) by higher education systems. Associate of Applied Science (AAS) Associate of Applied Technology (AAT) Associate of Engineering Technology (AET) Associate of Technology (AT)
Traditional Baccalaureate Degree program made up of liberal, academic, and professional coursework, providing a selection of courses designed to offer both breadth and specialization to students. Bachelor of Arts (BA) Bachelor of Science (BS)
Applied Baccalaureate Degree program emphasizing applied coursework and applied learning at the upper division or throughout the entire collegiate pathway, which often begins with an applied associate degree. Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS) Bachelor of Applied Technology (BAT) Bachelor of Technology (BT)

What Qualifies as an Applied Baccalaureate Degree?

The word “applied” in relation to degree programs has often been used to connote the importance of applied learning, often through contextualized instruction, that encourages direct applicability to the workforce (Pedrotti & Parks, 1991; Perin, 2011).

While the degree categories and descriptions provided above appear straight-forward, applying them in practice can be challenging. Differences in perception abound, and are ingrained in terminology, state policy, degree classifications titles, and stated personal and institutional preferences. Seeking to understand AB degree pathways using only the applied degree designations of credentials (e.g., AAS, BAS) as indicators for inclusion, is quite limiting because degree titles are not standardized across states, institutions or disciplines.

For OCCRL’s initial research on AB degrees, funded by the Lumina Foundation, we devised the following definition of applied baccalaureate degrees:

The applied baccalaureate degree is defined 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 the higher-order thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge and skills so desired in today’s job market. (Townsend, Bragg, & Ruud, 2008, p. iv)

An intriguing characteristic of many AB degrees is that they accept the transfer of all, or nearly all, credits from applied associate degrees that, in the past, have been considered terminal. This notion of transferring terminal coursework to create pathways for advanced degree attainment where none existed previously has been a defining feature and continues to be an important aspect of AB degrees.

How Are Applied Baccalaureate Degrees Understood in Practice?

In OCCRL’s research, funded by both the Lumina Foundation and the National Science Foundation, we presented participants the definition of AB degrees provided above that stresses both the applied nature of courses and the importance of quality outcomes (higher-order thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge and skills). We also respected participants’ understandings and definitions by welcoming their perceptions of which degrees and degree pathways fit the AB designation.

As a result, we learned about a variety of AB degree pathways.

In the first case, applied associate degrees transfer to AB degrees. This is the “purest” form of AB degree pathways, which emphasizes applied coursework and applied learning throughout the entire collegiate pathway.

Applied Associate once considered terminal; emphasizing applied courses and learning transfers to Applied Baccalaureate emphasizing applied courses and learning

In the second case, applied associate degrees transfer to traditional baccalaureate degrees. Applied coursework and learning is emphasized within the associate degree, and all or nearly all of those courses transfer to the baccalaureate degree which emphasizes a liberal, academic, or professional focus.

Applied Associate once considered terminal; emphasizing applied courses and learning transfers to Traditional Baccalaureate emphasizing liberal, academic, and professional coursework

In the third case, traditional associate degrees transfer to AB degrees. While the associate degree courses have a traditional liberal or academic focus primarily intended for transfer, the baccalaureate degree emphasizes applied courses and learning.

Transfer Associate emphasizing traditional liberal and academic coursework transfers to Applied Baccalaureate emphasizing applied courses and learning

Finally, it is important to recognize that applied courses and learning are not limited to degrees with applied designations (e.g., AAS, BAS). We have come across degree pathways that participants describe as essentially applied even though their degree designations (e.g., AS, BS) do not indicate it. Reasons for not identifying degrees as applied include state policies that do not permit applied designations (e.g., California, Illinois) and institutional concerns about bias such that applied designations are associated with lower prestige than traditional designations (e.g., in Kentucky and Massachusetts). Despite the differing terminology, we find these degree pathways to be an important part of the evolving story of AB degree pathways.

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What Are Applied Baccalaureate (AB) Curriculum Models?

What do Applied Baccalaureate Degrees Look Like?

Building upon past research (e.g., Bragg & Ruud, 2011; Ignash & Kotun, 2005), we identified several curriculum models used in AB degrees. These curriculum models describe the nature of upper-level courses included in the baccalaureate degrees.


Career ladder programs provide stepwise academic and technical coursework extending from the associate to the baccalaureate degree program.

Management capstone programs are those in which the associate degree program is supplemented with business and management-focused coursework at the upper division.

The focus of upside-down and completion programs lies almost exclusively on general education coursework, while the lower division is accepted as a general elective block or treated as a large portion of the degree program’s major. The difference between upside-down and completion tends to be in the structure and prescriptiveness of the curriculum. Upside-down degree programs frontload the technical coursework and compliment it with general education coursework at the upper division level. Completion degree programs tend to be more wide-ranging in their requirements and structure, often maximizing students’ chances of completing a baccalaureate degree by awarding credit for prior learning (Taylor, 2000).

Hybrid programs represent a convergence of these models, with a unique blend between two or three program types.

For More Information

For more information on curriculum models used in AB degrees, see the following publications:

  • Development of the Applied Baccalaureate
    Barbara K. Townsend, Debra D. Bragg, and Collin M. Ruud
    2009, Community College Journal of Research and Practice, Volume 33, Issue 9, Pages 686-705

    This article illustrates three types of AB degrees, and serves as a foundation for the curriculum models presented above.
  • Investigating Applied Baccalaureate Degree Pathways
    Technical Report
    Julia Panke Makela, Collin M. Ruud, Stacy Bennett, and Debra D. Bragg
    March 2012

    The data analysis section in this technical report provides a detailed look at curricula found in AB degree pathways that are affiliated with National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education projects and centers. Real-world examples of each curricular model are provided, and comparisons and contrasts are discussed.