Vocational Degree to Bachelors:
A Program to Improve Access to 4-Year Degrees for All Community College Students
Authored by: Terese Pratt & Natalie Brown
Participants in vocational postsecondary certificate programs are a quickly growing population. In 2010, approximately 1 million students were awarded postsecondary vocational certificates, which is up from 300,000 given in 1994 (Carnevale, Jayasundera, & Hanson, p.26). These certificates vary in length and structure, but share the goal of preparing students with immediately marketable skills that translate directly into the workplace. For many students these degrees are ideal – preparing them for career paths suited to their life goals – but what about those students whose life goals require more schooling? Are community colleges and bachelor’s degree-granting institutions meeting the needs of these students? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is often no. Many at community colleges and universities simply assume that students in vocational programs do not want or need to earn a bachelor’s degree. These assumptions result in the subtle but real message that, for vocational students, continuing on with their education is not an option.
The long-term implications for vocational certificate students not continuing for an advanced degree are very real. A chart from the Postsecondary Education Opportunity (2012) noted that Bureau of Labor statistics for 2011 and 2012 indicated that people with some college course work, but no degree, on average, experienced a 7.7% unemployment rate and mean earnings of $48,497. Those with bachelor’s degrees experienced only a 4.5% unemployment rate with mean earnings of $71,818. Without question, a 4-year degree can open doors for students and provide them with more job security and earning potential than they would have without it.
Advisors in the University of Utah Transfer Center partnered with colleagues at Salt Lake Community College, their closest transfer partner, to help vocational graduates transfer. In 2009, the two schools introduced the Associate of Applied Science (AAS) to Bachelor of Science (BS) Program. The goal of the program is to present the option of continuing on for a bachelor’s degree at the U of U to students in SLCC’s applied associate’s degree (vocational) programs and then provide materials and advising to help make this happen.
From the early stages of program development some very deep-seated attitudes about the roles of different types of educational programs in higher education came into play. Traditionally, vocational and bachelor’s degree programs have been considered to be very separate educational paths and were often seen to be in direct opposition to each other. A student was expected to select one or the other of these paths and then stay with it. It was thought that changing from one path to another would cost the student much time and money and was of questionable value.
Changing the perceptions of students, faculty, and staff regarding the appropriateness and feasibility of transferring AAS degrees has been the central focus of the AAS to BS Program. To achieve this goal, efforts are directed to helping AAS students understand the value and advantages a bachelor’s degree offers. Thus it becomes the mission of academic advising to assist AAS students in selecting university majors that most effectively use their vocational credits to ensure timely completion of a bachelor’s degree.
From the start, one of the greatest barriers to the program’s success has been the perception among faculty, advisors, and students that AAS degrees are not transferrable. AAS degrees had been regularly referred to by advisors at both the University of Utah and SLCC as “non- transferrable” while AS or AA degrees were labeled “transferrable degrees.” In fact, all credits from schools within the Utah State System of Higher Education (USHE) will transfer to other USHE schools regardless of whether they are academic or vocational in nature. Therefore, students with vocational credits are not starting from “square one” when they transfer to bachelor’s degree programs. Vocational credits transfer and are used, at a minimum, to fill needed elective hours and, in many cases, fulfill general education or lower-division major requirements. Correcting this very deep-seated misperception was an important first step in the AAS to BS Program.
Another misperception that needed correction was that many AAS students wanting an advanced degree often thought that degree needed to “match” their vocational degree. For example, students pursuing a Business Management AAS degree at SLCC often assumed they should transfer to the University’s Business Program. Likewise, students pursuing a Culinary Arts AAS program thought they needed to transfer to the University’s Hospitality Management major. The general problem with this transfer model is that university professional majors seemingly linked with vocational degrees are often selective admission programs that are lengthy to complete. Because of the large number of credits required and the sequential nature of these majors, AAS students transferring into these professional programs often spend another four or five years completing requirements on top of the 60+ credit hours earned in their vocational degree. Additionally, professional majors at the University of Utah are restricted programs with competitive application processes; this factor adds time and complexity for AAS students who wish to complete a bachelor’s degree.
Moving to a New Model
One key to the success of the AAS to BS Program is that it moves to a new transfer model. Rather than guiding students completing a vocational program into a similar professional major, advisors encourage students to consider liberal arts majors in the colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences. These majors have a distinct advantage of being flexible and unrestricted, thus students often have a shorter time to completion. With fewer required courses, transferring students can use vocational credits to fulfill electives outside the major specific graduation requirements.
Advisors promote the value of a liberal arts degree. Much effort is spent showing students how the immediately marketable skills developed in their AAS degrees combine with the high-level, transferrable skills achieved in liberal arts majors. The combination of these skills is powerful in the world of work.
Our motto is “Your AAS degree gets you the job; your liberal arts degree helps you move up the ladder to reach your full potential”. Many AAS students possess a narrow and vocational view of their education; they need help understanding how skills like problem-solving, analysis, synthesis, and writing are used in high-level professional jobs. Once students understand how mastery of these skills will help them succeed they become excited about adding the skills to the hands-on training they receive in their AAS classes.
The actual components of the AAS to BS Program are relatively simple; education/training, marketing, and advising. The program includes the following elements:
• An AAS to BS Program Guide for faculty and advisors which outlines the program’s goals and works to dispel some misconceptions surrounding the transfer of courses within AAS degrees
• Since most program activities occur on the SLCC campus, information/training sessions are held at SLCC for advisors and program administrators
• Information sheets are distributed to students in various AAS programs.
• Advertising methods include flyers and blog postings that spread the word on the SLCC campus
Sample academic plans were developed which matched AAS degrees with a variety of University of Utah majors to illustrate the AAS to BS transfer. These plans pair a variety of AAS degrees to numerous bachelor’s programs to illustrate the many possible paths students can follow once they transfer. These plans help assure students that they are not embarking on an endeavor that will require many more years of schooling.
One-on-one advising of students considering the AAS to BS path has been absolutely essential to the success of the program. Students are encouraged to meet regularly with University of Utah Transfer Center advisors to explore the option of continuing on for a bachelor’s degree and to decide upon the best University of Utah major for them based on their career goals and interests. Working in conjunction with SLCC advisors, students are assisted in developing an academic plan which includes their remaining time at SLCC and looks ahead to the courses they will take once they transfer to the U of U. Students are connected with the university departmental advisor for their major as well as other university resources to help them with the transfer process.
Once the goals and methods of the AAS to BS Program were clearly understood, faculty, advisors, and students at both campuses embraced the program. It has been rewarding to see the excitement of AAS students as doors they never dreamed they would go through open up and an exciting professional future appears within their grasp.
In a research brief, the Collegiate Employment Research Institution (CERI) presented the idea of the balanced or “T-Shaped professional” (CERI, para. 2). The “T-Shaped Professional” is one who mixes deep, career-specific knowledge (found in vocational or professional degree programs) with broad, boundary-crossing competencies (found in liberal arts majors). The report showed that a large number of employers are looking to hire people with this balanced educational background. If the “T-Shaped Professional” is a significant trend on the career development landscape, then a program like the AAS to BS offers one possible model for its development.
Advisors wanting to develop a program to promote the “T-Shaped” ideal might also find the challenges encountered in the development of the AAS to BS program to be illuminating. Many of the problems experienced in the early days of the program came from long-held assumptions about the separation of vocational education from broader skill building. These assumptions appear to be wide-spread in the higher education today and will need to be faced by anyone wanting to develop a program that bridges these two educational paths.
Even advisors who do not want to develop their own program or who do not work with transfer students may want to consider the basic idea behind the AAS to BS Program and think about ways they can help their students become balanced professionals. Careful selection of minors, double–majors, and the thoughtful choice of electives can help all students develop skills not found in their chosen majors. Helping students fully appreciate the value of the variety of skills (both broad and specific) developed in general education classes is also something advisors can do to help all students develop a balanced set of skills.
Creating new educational pathways and expanding the reach of advising services to the greatest variety of students possible have been the goals of the AAS to BS program. Blending vocational training with broad, transferrable skill building is a somewhat radical approach to educational planning, but one that may be the wave of the future in career development. Because the program required the blending of these two traditionally separate paths, putting the AAS to BS Program into place has required the changing of assumptions and attitudes and the correction of misperceptions. The basic thrust of the program, developing balanced future professionals by helping students create educational plans designed to develop both career-specific and broad-based skills, is an idea that can fruitfully inform the advising and program development of advisors working with all types of students.
Assistant Director, University College
University of Utah
Program Director, Academic Advisement
Truckee Meadows Community College
Carnevale, A.P., Jayasundera, T, & Hanson, A. R. (2012). Career and technical education: five ways that pay. Washington, DC: Georgetown University. Retrieved from https://georgetown.app.box.com/s/jd4r0nwvjtq12g1olx8v
Collegiate Employment Research Institute (2012). Liberally educated versus in-depth training: Employers perceptions of what they look for in new talent: CERI research brief 2012.4. East Lansing, MI: CERI. Retrieved from http://www.ceri.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/CERI-Research-Brief-2012-4-Liberally-Educated-Versus-In-Depth-Training.pdf
Education and training pay (2012). Oskaloosa, IA: Postsecondary Education Opportunity. Retrieved from http://www.postsecondary.org/archives/Posters/EducationTraining.pdf
How to Cite this article:
Pratt, T & Brown, N. (2012). Vocational Degree to Bachelors: A Program to Improve Access to 4-Year Degrees for All Community College Students. Retrieved from NACADA Clearninghouse of Completion strategies and resources website. https://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Completion-strategies-and-resources.aspx.