Revisiting Associate's Degree Standards


During the last two Senate plenary sessions, there has been spirited debate over whether to raise statewide requirements (Title 5) in mathematics and English for the associate's degrees. Currently statewide minimum requirements specify a course in elementary algebra and a course no more than one level below transfer-level English composition (Title 5, section 55805.5). Thoughtful arguments were put forth in previous breakouts by both those who favor raising these requirements and by those opposed to raising them.

Those who favor raising standards pointed out that elementary algebra and English composition one level below transfer-level English composition are unquestionably high-school-level courses and that to offer a college degree for high-school level work undermines the value of that degree. In addition, offering a two-year college degree that appears to require less than college-level course work could vitiate our efforts to convince the public that we deserve to be considered a full partner in post-secondary education, a claim important to gaining funding at an FTES rate closer to that of the other two segments of public postsecondary education. Further, those who want to raise standards point out that our associate's degree standards are lower than those in other states, except for those that offer a separate occupational associate's degree, and lower than the new expectations for a high school diploma in California.

Those opposed to raising Title 5 standards for the associate's degree requirements in mathematics and English point out that raising standards could, in some cases, remove the likelihood that many overburdened and underprepared students would obtain their degrees, especially important to people who are the first in their families to attend college. Opponents also assert that more demanding English and mathematics course requirements make sense for transfer students, but that many of our students seek an associate's degree for its value in the job market and would be deterred by added requirements that they believe may not be needed for this goal. In addition, there is the problem of timing. Without far better support systems in all of our colleges, those with limited English proficiencies would be unfairly impeded in reaching their goals, as would those who have struggled with mathematics. They conclude that in this time of budget cuts, when we cannot provide the basic skills support many of our students need, raising requirements would not help our students and would in fact be unfair to them. Some faculty hold that decisions about degree requirements should be made by faculty at the local level, not by statute at the state level. However, carrying this argument to its logical conclusion would have us advocate for the removal of all state standards and recognize only local standards for a degree recognized nationally. Also, because we are funded with state money, it follows that the state's perceived interests must be satisfied and that a statewide mission for our colleges is legitimate and necessary.

Important questions of educational philosophy have been posed in discussion groups. How much mathematics does one need to succeed in today's vocational and educational environments? Why does everyone who might transfer, let alone those entering the job market, need algebra? Are applications more important than rule and formula-driven approaches? What pedagogical approaches and support services might increase students' success? If our associate's degrees are designed for those going into the job market and not just for transfer students, why require an English course that includes a term paper and essay writing skills? How are such narrowly defined skills requisite to jobs?

The faculty who want to raise the standards in mathematics and English respond by pointing out that they favor providing college-level courses that are well designed for vocational students and that will have clear value in the workplaces where our students will find themselves. A more advanced mathematics course need not include high-level algebra; a collegelevel English course can include instruction in job-related research and writing tasks in lieu of traditional term papers. Today's jobs require greater skills in reading, writing, information gathering, and mathematics than those in the past, and the demand for a better educated work force will certainly continue.

But perhaps this debate has focused too much on the parts instead of the larger consideration of what our degree represents. The first questions on which we need to come to some agreement is what the associate's of arts or science means and what common features it must have to best serve our student populations.

Our community colleges are two-year institutions, so it follows that a degree a student earns must represent two years of college study. The degrees our students leave us with must certify to the public-the folks whose taxes support our colleges and who hire our graduates-that these graduates have the skills that are expected of a person with two full years of college preparation. These include college-level skills in reading, writing, and mathematics. This does not mean that the appreciations and values that exposure to a tapestry of lectures, study groups, clubs, music and drama productions, and other parts of the campus culture-the less quantifiable elements of higher education-are not every bit as important to the development of our graduates. Certainly the development of an openness to new ideas, an appreciation for evaluating one's own culture in terms of the broader mix of cultures, and a respect for all sorts of knowledge and talents that we are exposed to on our campuses-both in classes and outside of class-are essential elements of higher education. But to require competencies less than those defined as college-level for associate's degrees subverts the value of those degrees in the public domain (much as the value of the high school diploma has evaporated), and it leaves the associate's degrees ill-defined in the eyes of the degree holder. For these reasons the associate's degrees must be clearly defined as a college degree.

If we agree with this premise, we are still left with the question of who determines what competencies are truly college-level and what courses our students must successfully complete to demonstrate those competencies. Should English 1A and college algebra be requirements for everyone who earns an associate's degree? Not if we value the diversity of goals of our degree-seeking students. The faculty must work within their disciplines and with their curriculum committees to develop new courses that both meet the requirement of being college-level and at the same time meet the practical needs of our students. Students should not be required to jump through the same old hoops of traditional freshman composition (English 1A) and college algebra. Many of us have been creative enough to develop service learning and learning-community approaches to teaching students college-level skills that our students find relevant and exciting. Others have incorporated on-line instruction and tailored courses to specific occupational areas that nonetheless can, in future years, provide transferable credit for students moving up the career ladder. The challenge of bringing our students up to college-level skills in the areas of reading, writing, and mathematics can provide an impetus for us to create better ways of serving all our students.

The Academic Senate has not yet taken a position whether to change any Title 5 requirements for the associate's degree, although those who want a clearly collegiate level of rigor in mathematics and English make a strong case. But the Academic Senate's faculty should periodically review state minimum academic requirements and provide the Board of Governors with its carefully considered position on how academic requirements define this degree so that it retains and even increases its value to those who achieve it.