Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment & Accreditation


A big community college issue: Degree programs that really aren't

Posted on June 20, 2016 at 11:30 AM

Over the years I’ve worked with myriad community colleges, large and small, in dozens of states throughout the United States. More than many other higher ed sectors, community colleges truly focus on helping students learn, making assessment a relatively easy sell and making community colleges some of my favorites to work with.


But I’m seeing an issue at community colleges throughout the United States that deeply troubles me and can make assessment of program learning outcomes almost impossible. The issue flows from the two kinds of associate degree programs that community colleges offer. One kind is what many call “career and technical education” (CTE) programs. Often A.A.S. degrees, these are designed to prepare students for immediate employment. The other kind is what many call “transfer programs”: A.A. or A.S. programs, often named something like “General Studies” or “Liberal Education,” that are designed to prepare students to transfer into baccalaureate programs at four-year colleges.


The problem I’m seeing is that many of these programs, especially on the transfer side, aren’t really programs. Here’s how the regional accreditors’ standards define programs:


  • ACCJC: “Appropriate breadth, depth, rigor, sequencing, time to completion, and synthesis of learning”
  • HLC: “Require levels of performance by students appropriate to the degree or certificate awarded”
  • MSCHE: “Characterized by rigor and coherence… designed to foster a coherent student learning experience and to promote synthesis of learning”
  • NEASC effective July 1, 2016: “Coherent design and… appropriate breadth, depth, continuity, sequential progression, and synthesis of learning”
  • NWCCU: “Rigor that [is] consistent with mission… A coherent design with appropriate breadth, depth, sequencing of courses, and synthesis of learning”
  • SACS: “A coherent course of study”
  • WSCUC: “Appropriate in content, standards of performance, [and] rigor”



There’s a theme here: A collection of courses is not a program and, conversely, a program is more than a collection of courses. A true program has both coherence and rigor. In order for this to happen, some courses must be more advanced than others and build on what’s been learned in earlier courses. That means that some program courses should be at the 200-level and have prerequisites.


But many community college degree “programs” are in fact collections of courses, nothing more.


  • Many transfer degree “programs” consist of 42 or 45 credits of general education courses—virtually all introductory 100-level courses—plus another 12-18 credits of electives, sometimes in an area of specialization, sometimes not.
  • At virtually every community college I’ve visited, it’s entirely possible for students to complete an associate degree in at least one “program” by taking only 100-level courses.
  • In some disciplines, “program” courses are largely cognate requirements (such as physics for an engineering program) with perhaps only one course in the program discipline itself.
  • And on top of all this, any 200-level courses in the “program” are often sophomore-level in name only; they have no prerequisites and appear no more rigorous than 100-level courses.



Two years of 100-level study does not constitute an associate degree and does not prepare transfer students for the junior-level work they will face when they transfer. And a small handful of introductory courses does not constitute an associate degree program.


Turning community college associate degree programs into true programs with rigor and coherence is remarkably difficult. Among the barriers:


  • Some systems and states prohibit community colleges from offering associate degrees in liberal arts or business disciplines, as Charlene Nunley, Trudy Bers, and Terri Manning note in NILOA’s Occasional Paper #10, “Learning Outcomes Assessment in Community Colleges.”
  • In other systems and states, plenty of community college faculty have told me that their counterparts at local four-year colleges don’t want them to teach anything beyond introductory courses—the four-year faculty want to teach the rest themselves. (My reaction? What snobs.)
  • Yet other community college faculty have told me that they have felt pressure from the Lumina Foundation’s completion agenda to eliminate all course prerequisites.



So at some community colleges nothing can be done until laws, regulations, or policies are changed, leaving thousands of students in the meanwhile with a shortchanged education. But there are plenty of other community colleges that can do something. I’m particularly impressed with Passaic County Community College’s approach. Every degree program, even those in the liberal arts, has designated one 200-level course as its program capstone. The course is open only to students who have completed at least 45 credits and have taken at least one other course in the discipline. For the English AA, for example, this course is “Topics in Literature,” and for the Psychology option in the Liberal Arts AA, this course is “Social Psychology.” It’s a creative solution to a pervasive problem.

Categories: Curriculum & teaching

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Reply ★ Owner
10:18 AM on June 22, 2016 
Elaine, thank you for your thoughtful feedback. You're correct that undergraduate degrees--both associate and bachelor's--have two components, general education and the "program" or what people at four-year colleges call the "major." I did not make this distinction clearly in my blog post, and thanks for making it for me. I meant to focus on programs on the transfer side, such as the Music, Education, and Biology programs you mention. Unfortunately, while you say they are coherent courses of study, I've seen way too many that aren't.

For what it's worth, AAC&U and others have been talking for quite a while about the benefit of integrating the two undergrad gen ed and major components into a more integrated experience. Thinking skills introduced in gen ed courses should be developed further in the "program," in the context of the discipline. When this happens, it might be argued that the gen ed and major are two components of a degree program. But my sense is that most colleges are not yet at this point.
Reply Joe Levy
11:30 AM on June 21, 2016 
Interesting topic and conversation. It's important to point out that a program needs to be more than a collection of courses. There needs to be intention in the courses, scaffolding learning, and connection of content throughout the courses. Elaine raises a good question about differentiating degrees and programs. I think that's one of the many next-step questions this blog raises. By providing the accreditation criteria (and support points), it's a start to putting together criteria or conditions to differentiate a program from a collection of courses or a degree (not that those are equivalent!). Lots to ponder here, thanks for raising the point, Linda!
Reply Elaine Guthals
2:29 PM on June 20, 2016 
I beg to differ. Community colleges offer associate degrees. These degrees include a program component and a general education component. They can either be CTE in nature, or they can lead to transfer. We do not offer associate degree programs.

On the transfer side, you have the Music program, the Education program, the Biology program, etc. These are coherent courses of study and, therefore, should have definable program outcomes. Because so many people think degree and program are joined at the hip, they think these terms are interchangeable.

Unfortunately because of this, too many community college programs are just a combination of courses because we are told we don't have programs -- we just have degrees. Our transfer degrees are general education heavy. It leaves little room for program courses. Until Illinois changes the General Education Core Curriculum requirements, they will remain general education heavy.

Community colleges will continue to have ineffective programs until the distinction between degrees and programs is made. As long as four-year institutions refuse to allow community colleges to teach anything other than introductory courses, the problem will continue. Until faculty see themselves as a program, this will continue. As long as students are allowed to choose what courses fit into their schedules regardless of what courses are in their programs, program faculty will never see them until graduation, and the problem will continue. I submit that a start would be to distinguish between degrees and programs.