General Education Requirements in Technical Degree Programs: Do They Close or Open Doors?

Marisa Vernon, Columbus State Community College

Community colleges seek to provide education pathways to the masses, with missions focused on access. Given this focus, American community colleges have always served as the most natural home for technical education programs designed to provide occupational training. During the community college growth period in the 1950s, popular programs included automotive technology, skilled trades, book keeping, and construction.

Today’s community colleges remain committed to workforce needs and training students who select to pursue practical education over a liberal arts experience. Generally resulting in a certificate or associate degree credential, such programs provide a direct route to highly skilled career opportunities. While many community colleges have established articulation or completion agreements with area universities, applied associate degree programs essentially “flip” the traditional pathway to a bachelors degree by frontloading applied training coursework. This model attracts many students to community colleges. However, as community colleges seek to increase academic rigor, technical certificate and associate degree programs are often outliers in the discussion. Can a community college offer skill training programs without holding students to minimum standards in English composition, reading, and mathematics? Do students pursuing technical programs need the same general education foundation as their peers who utilize the community college to complete arts and sciences degrees?

Perhaps the most valuable and yet contradicting value expressed by community college missions is the lack of a one size fits all approach. This approach to education has helped community colleges to fit a niche in the American higher education marketplace and to respond quickly to gaps in the regional and national workforce. By offering both liberal arts and technical coursework, the community college can welcome students with any number of educational goals. Without an awareness of these two concurrent missions, however, community colleges can easily deter students from certain programs and thus suffer a negative impact to enrollment. Consider, for example, the implication of a minimum reading level on a program designed to cater to applied learners (such as automotive technology, welding, or other skilled trades). These programs offer excellent career pathways for individuals seeking immediate employability and a specialized skillset. They also fill a gap within the American workforce as more individuals enroll in universities and obtain a more general educational foundation.

While several career development theories are widely referenced in student affairs and workforce development discussions, most theories detail a subset of the population that possesses strong physical, applied, and kinesthetic preferences. While the K-12 classroom may not cater to these preferences, technical degree programs offer a learning environment where individuals who prefer applied learning can thrive and obtain valuable career skills that are needed within our society. Some areas of general or liberal education can be perceived as disconnected to a student who is pursuing technical training, and thus may even be seen as a barrier to career preparation.

The Pressure to Articulate

While many Americans immediately associate community colleges with technical training, some states have begun to hold all state institutions to the same level of accountability, or grouped them together in the public debate on degree completion. With much of the focus on creating a more educated workforce, the bar continues to rise as states engage in an education arms race. Community colleges are under pressure to create completion agreements with universities, and to not only train employable graduates but to facilitate their eventual transfer as well. With an increased focus on bachelor degree attainment, applied technical degree programs are faced with the challenge of managing enrollment while still folding in the general education coursework that prepares a student for further education later on.

In the early 1980s, three distinct degrees were established among American community colleges. This determination, led by the American Association of Community Colleges, ultimately created the Associate of Arts and Sciences degrees which were designed to create pathways to four-year degree completion, and the Associate of Applied Science which was intended to support vocational training. This distinction still exists at most community colleges almost thirty years later, and serves as the most basic filtering systems for providing students with education options that best fit their academic ability. However, state achievement goals and a changing workforce have created gray areas between these seemingly simplistic degree options. While the Associate of Applied Science degree focuses on technical training, additional general education requirements have begun to pile up in the degree plans (Chase, 2011).

Even with these efforts, however, Chase (2011) finds that only about half of a technical program’s credits transfer to four-year universities. Of the credits accepted by universities, technical credits are generally not accepted outside of specific and identified articulation agreements. Students are often set back by this upon entering the university, and many need to begin at the first-year level even after earning an associates’ degree. While the general education courses in the technical degree help students who transfer, many students are still held back at their future universities due to the low number of credits accepted anyhow. Is this system truly promoting degree completion, or is it creating barriers for students who seek immediate and applied workforce training?

While general education coursework has certainly elevated the academic level of technical and applied degree programs, one unintended consequence is the impact on students beginning in developmental education levels. Such developmental reading, writing and math sequences require underprepared students to maintain high levels of motivation in order to persist towards the vocational coursework they desire to take. Without support, a clear career goal in mind, and a healthy dose of willpower, many students will exit the community college system before discovering the programs that facilitate the hands-on and applied coursework they desire.

The debate over entry points to technical education coursework is a delicate one that includes the voices of many unique stakeholders. While college administrators seek to improve the academic success of the student body, many technical program faculty are passionate about keeping the doors to their programs open to all. Still another stakeholder group among faculty may argue the need for basic reading, writing, and math competency in fields such as automotive technology, skilled trades, photography, and the like. State and national government entities also enter the debate as pressure to both fill workforce needs and promote degree attainment collide. These voices and competing priorities all add additional depth to this discussion.

Impact of Additional Courses on Motivation

ACT (2012) reports that roughly half of new students leave community colleges prior to the completion of the first year. Bers and Schuetz (2014) sought to dig beneath this rate to determine the reasons why so many students stop out while attending community colleges, and revealed several factors. While their research outlined known reasons such as financial constraints, heavy external responsibilities, and transferring prior to degree, the writers also addressed reasons that pertained specifically to frustration with institutional requirements and structure. Community colleges enroll high percentages of first-generation students who enter the college seeking pathways to specific careers. As Bers and Schuetz (2014) indicate, many students are not aware of how their credits will apply to credentials, the benefit of general or preparatory coursework, and the requirements of specialized degree programs. External demands such as family responsibilities, work, or finances also compile and create a sense of skepticism among students with regards to taking classes that are perceived as “extra”. As the authors indicate, community college students, often under pressure, want to avoid wasting time, money, or effort on extra steps to their career goals.

This mentality, while not necessarily found among all community college students, does help administrators and faculty members understand why general or developmental education foundation coursework can quickly deflate individuals seeking vocational or applied science credentials.

The Math Barrier

For nearly every first-year community college student, one of the first steps in the enrollment process includes a placement process by which Advisors determine reading, writing, and math starting points. While developmental reading and writing placements can often delay a student’s entrance into technical program coursework, mathematics remediation creates perhaps the largest barrier to degree completion.

Two-thirds of students entering community college students require developmental education in the area of mathematics, and the majority of these students do not achieve college-level math at any point in their college experience. While many community colleges offer certificates and technical degrees that do not require high levels of math proficiency, Bahr (2012) finds that struggling students do not necessarily shift their efforts to these programs before simply stopping out all together, and that the large majority will exit the institution without earning any credential.

Math continues to prevent many community college students from earning degrees. While many colleges have employed strategies to support students through developmental math levels, the average community college student spends about three to five semesters working through developmental math sequences (Bahr, 2012). Depending on pre-admission criteria or course pre-requisites, many Associate of Applied Science degree-seekers may not receive exposure to his or her field of study until several semesters into his or her community college experience. This gap, while enhancing the technical degree with general education coursework, can present a barrier to a first-generation student who is eager to earn an employable and applied credential.

Employable Certificates

Many community colleges have begun to develop workforce certificates that either prepare students for licensing exams or lead to specialized, entry-level technical work. The certificate programs are designed to offer alternative routes to students who choose not to pursue an associates’ degree, or, ideally, can be used as an entry point to specific careers. In addition, such certificates offer another credential alternative to students struggling through developmental or general education coursework, but who have the skills necessary to succeed in technical coursework.

While many applied certificates take only a few courses to complete, these training programs are in fact seen as valuable to employers, according to Dadgar and Weiss (2012). Many community colleges, however, struggle to both create and recruit students to certificate programs, as students often cannot utilize some forms of financial aid to pursue this credential. In Ohio, for example, colleges must not only develop certificate programs, but prove their employability in order to qualify for student aid. One alternative to this, however, is creating certificates that lead to degrees. While challenging in terms of course sequencing and pre-requisite coursework, this approach may be a viable option for some students who are eager to jump into training, but are apprehensive about pursuing all coursework for a degree.

Conclusion

Technical education is, by nature, an evolving component within many community colleges. In an effort to respond to workforce demands, technical departments create strong programs that are designed to offer specialized training at the associate degree level. This level of education, to many students, provides a desirable opportunity for quick training in high-growth areas.

However, as community colleges are also asked to take on a bigger role in bachelor degree completion, promote transfer, and increase academic rigor, these programs often find themselves at the center of the debate between access and success. For decades, community college technical programs have opened the doors for many individuals to receive valuable skills training. As higher education has grown to fit new facets of the workforce and serve a wider net of students, the landscape of these “front door” programs has changed in response. As community college faculty and administrators employ success strategies that raise the qualifications of their students, these potential impacts to technical program enrollment should be considered. While general education coursework embedded within technical curriculum helps to improve the transferability and academic perception of these programs, unintended consequences may surface. As institutions add qualifying layers to previously accessible programs, the access mission on which community colleges were built may begin to diminish. Likewise, student achievement may begin to decrease as well, as additional barriers can decrease a student’s desire to pursue a seemingly unreachable goal.

Discussion Questions

  1. Community colleges are often viewed as the solution to issues of unemployment, underemployment, and regional economic development challenges. Does this role place additional pressure on community colleges to ensure students leave with a credential or degree? Why or why not? What are the other options open to students if they are not academically successful in a technical degree program?
  2. Do you feel as though technical degree programs should include college-level general education classes? Why or why not?
  3. In your opinion, what can be done in order to change the general perception of career/ technical degrees? What information is important for parents, families, and students to consider when reviewing various educational/career routes?

References

Bahr, P. R. (2013). The aftermath of remedial math: investigating the low rate of certificate completion among remedial math Students. Research in higher education, 54(2), 171-200.

Bers, T., & Schuetz, P. (2014). Nearbies: a missing piece of the college completion conundrum. Community College Review, 42(3), 167-183.

Chase, M. M. (2011). Benchmarking equity in transfer policies for career and technical associate’s degrees. Community College Review, 39(4), 376-404.

Dadgar, M. & Weiss, M.J. (2012). Labor market returns to sub-baccalaureate credentials: How much does a community college certificate or degree pay? (CRCC Working Paper 45). New York, NY. Retrieved from: http://capseecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/07/332_1101.pdf

Packard, B. W., & Jeffers, K. C. (2013). Advising and progress in the community college STEM transfer pathway. NACADA Journal, 33(2), 65-76.

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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