30 Years of Evolution for Associate Degree

Vice President

Interest in the associate degree has never been greater due to the claim that the State of California will need 1,000,000 more citizens with a college degree by 20251. Given the attention on the associate degree, some faculty have asked to study the component parts of it: general education (GE), the major or area of emphasis, and electives. Over time, the Academic Senate and the Chancellor’s Office have entertained proposals and recommendations to modify GE, the major requirements, or other aspects of the degree. The associate degree has evolved in several important ways over the last 30 years, and this evolution contributes to its value today. The degree has been shaped by philosophies, standards, debate, and the need to prepare both educated citizens and employees for the state. This article will review a brief history of key changes to the associate degree in the last 30 years that influence current conversations about the component parts of the degree.

The Academic Senate office has archived documents from the 1970s and 1980s that have been useful in providing history and context behind the current associate degree requirements. These documents detail Senate resolutions, note recommendations from committees and task forces, and include old sections of Title 5. The requirements for the degree may have changed or developed prior to this time, but the Senate does not have older records available for study. One of the oldest records, for example, comes from 1979 and indicates that the Senate passed resolutions recommending that no more than 10% of the total units in a degree should be “remedial” units in basic skills and that those units should not be used to satisfy GE requirements, that the number of GE units should be equal to one-third of the total units required for the associate degree, and that criteria should be formulated for the inclusion of courses within the GE pattern. As most of today’s California community college educators know, no basic skills courses may now be counted toward the associate degree, the number of GE units in a degree rarely equates to one-third of the degree, and some colleges are still developing criteria to be used for the inclusion of a course in the GE package.

Recommendations that were overly prescriptive (such as requiring the number of GE units be equal to one-third of the units in the degree) rarely resulted in permanent changes. The best and most lasting recommendations were those where colleges were given boundaries and guidelines yet retained flexibility to serve their students in the best way possible. During the 1980s, many recommendations were developed by the Senate that were both limiting as well as flexible. Recommendations from resolutions of that decade include the following:

  • Urge designation of the major field on diplomas for all associate degrees.
  • Define the Associate of Technology Degree, which includes a major of 40 or more units.
  • Remediate basic skills deficiencies before students enroll in transfer courses or degree programs.
  • Recommend that the associate degree applicable mathematics courses include Elementary Algebra and all levels above, and, after Fall 1986, raise the requirement to Intermediate Algebra.
  • Confer with the chief instructional officers about creating an associate degree for transfer and an applied associate degree.
  • Recommend establishing two degrees:
    • Associate Degree 1: 35 major units and 21 GE
    • Associate Degree 2: 21 major units and 35 GE
  • Establish that only the associate in arts and associate in science be offered in California community colleges.
  • Propose that an associate in arts contain 39 units of GE modeled on CSU and UC requirements and 15 units in a concentrated area.
  • Propose that an associate in science contain 24 units of GE and at least 30 units in the major field.
  • Oppose creation of the Applied Science Degree.


Given all of these recommendations from the 1980s, it is interesting to see which ones gained traction and were implemented and which ones did not. For example, the fourth bullet describes a change to the graduation requirement for mathematics that was eventually enacted in Fall 2009, and the seventh bullet defines only two types of associate degrees: the associate in arts and the associate in science, which are the two degrees we have had since that time. In addition, Title 5 regulations from 1983 indicate that a minimum of 18 units in both the major and GE were required for the associate degree. Despite interest in different types of associate degrees and various unit configurations for GE and the major, associate degrees – in arts and in science – continue to be based on a minimum of 18 units in each GE and the major.

Also during the 1980s, a system task force on academic quality was formed. Among the many topics considered by this group were the associate degree and standards for the degree. One of the key accomplishments of the task force was to enact a Title 5 change that defined degree applicable and non-degree applicable courses in order to protect the value and integrity of the associate degree. These standards still exist in Title 5 §55002. The task force went further to recommend that certificate programs be defined so that “students have the option to add on GE requirements if they desire an associate degree.” Certificates were typically 18 units or more so the model associate degree could be the sum of its component parts: work in the major (certificate) plus GE plus any remaining units as electives.

Further, the task force recommended that the community college system work with the CSU to establish the associate in arts degree as sufficient academic preparation for transfer with standing at the junior level, including the recognition of special degrees for this purpose, and develop common core GE. About this same time, the Intersegmental Committee of Academic Senates (ICAS) was already shaping the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum (IGETC) as the common core GE alluded to by the task force. As a point of comparison, many states around the nation today are interested in developing common GE patterns for community college transfer students. California has been leading the nation in this area for over 20 years.

In 1999, the Chancellor’s Office prepared a proposal regarding the associate degree. The proposal included the following recommendations:

  • Conduct a survey to see if degrees based on GE transfer requirements are useful.
  • Possibly label this degree as an “Associate in Arts degree in University Studies”
  • Consider granting the degree with only 56 units as required for transfer (note: 56 units were all that were required at that time)
  • No local graduation requirements
  • Consider two degrees: one with 18 units in the major and 30 units of GE and the other with 30 units in the major and 18 units of GE.


No one seems to remember if such a survey was developed and administered, and the title of the proposed degree is similar to the title of GE compilation degrees developed in the early 2000s. There are significant similarities to the Chancellor’s Office proposal and the current requirements of the associate degrees for transfer resulting from SB 1440 (Padilla, 2010).

The Academic Senate established other positions on the associate degree in the 2000s, chief of which was the opposition in 2006 to GE compilation degrees, particularly those based solely on CSU GE breadth courses or IGETC. And in 2008, the Senate approved definitions of the associate in arts and in science. The faculty defined an associate in science to be any degree awarded in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM disciplines) or any career technical education (CTE) area. The associate in arts degree would be awarded in every other discipline. Although the community college system supported these faculty recommended definitions of an AA and an AS, Title 5 does not include these definitions because of challenges from the Department of Finance.

The minimum standards of 18 units in the major (30% of the degree) and 18 units in GE (also 30% of the degree) give local colleges flexibility to provide a variety of degrees that meet the needs of students in many different majors and pathways. If a college designed a degree adhering to the minimums for both areas, which few if any colleges have done, then students would be left with 24 units of electives (40% of the degree), which seems excessive. Most colleges have degrees with more units in GE or the major because of local philosophies and programmatic design. If a student completes the associate in arts for transfer (AA-T) or associate in science for transfer (AS-T) with 39 units of GE and 18 units in the major, then 65% of the units in the degree come from GE and 30% come from the major, and only 5% of the units are electives unless there is double counting. Colleagues who have attempted over the years to modify the standards for the degree in terms of the minimum or maximum number of units in GE or the major have found that their arguments were often outmatched by those advocating local control of the number of required units, as long as the minimums were met.

Given 30 years of proposed changes to the associate degree and the number of recommendations that have shaped the current degree, it is difficult to know what changes might loom in the future. Students earning an associate degree must understand its value, the reasons for its component parts, and its place within the range of all academic degrees available in order to appreciate the design of the degree established by faculty and local academic senates. Today’s degree has evolved to a point where the quality of the courses and rigor for students surpasses that of previous degrees, and faculty will continue to review the degree in order to uphold the quality and integrity of any degree earned by students within the state.

1. 2008 PPIC report, "Closing the Gap: Meeting California's Need for College Graduates". http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_409HJR.pdf