The EvoLLLution | Two-Year Degrees at a Four-Year University: Getting the Lay of the Land
Critical to fulfilling the institutional mission, running an associate degree program at a four-year institution creates access points for a wider range of students.

Colleges and universities are constantly looking for ways to enrich their portfolio of offerings. The push from community college systems across the United States to offer bachelor degrees has created a stir across the industry. A transformation that is happening more quietly is that a growing number of four-year universities are offering associate degree programs. In this Q&A, Regina Smick-Attisano discusses the advantages and challenges of running an associate degree program at a four-year university.

Click here to read key takeaways.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How do students benefit from four-year institutions offering associate degrees?

Regina Smick-Attisano (RSA): I believe they benefit from having a learning environment that is typically smaller and more individualized, yet situated within a campus that provides other educational benefits such as a bigger library, national speakers, study abroad options, athletic competitions, social activities on a grander scale and oftentimes the opportunity to live on a campus versus commuting.

Evo: On the flip side, what are the benefits for universities who choose to offer associate degrees?

RSA: The biggest benefit, I believe, especially in the case of state land grant universities, is the option of choice to the constituents they serve—either a two-year or a four-year degree.

Additionally, the admissions requirements for two-year programs are typically less stringent, so students who might not have been able to attend a four-year institution right out of high school can attend but just pursuing the other undergraduate degree (the associates).

If the institution is strategic and where appropriate, they can gain by having the faculty teaching in the two-year program be responsible for the first and second year courses and the faculty in the four-year program the last two years.

Evo: How does offering two-year associates degrees fit into the mission of the institution?

RSA: Legislators in the state of New Hampshire created the School back in 1895 and located it at the state land grant. They wanted an alternative education route to get students into the workforce in a shorter amount of time, focused on the practical side of the agricultural disciplines at that time. Back then, it wasn’t an associate degree awarded but a certificate. The associate degree came later in our nation’s educational history.

The University of New Hampshire chose to retain the associate degree-granting Thompson School because the majority of the disciplines offered are agricultural and fit well into the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture and also for the reason stated above—it gives the citizens of New Hampshire another entry point into the state’s flagship university.

Evo: Given the value of stackable credentials, does pursuing an associate degree from a four-year institution provide students with opportunities for further learning they may not have otherwise had?

RSA: It used to do that as the relationships between community colleges and four-year institutions weren’t always friendly.

Today that isn’t the case, so transferring from a community college is pretty much seamless. However, the student who is already on the four-year campus doesn’t need to make a physical transition or accomplish other things a typical transfer student has to do and that is to the student’s advantage. The students who are already here can easily talk to advisors in their potential baccalaureate major and even take a class or two to explore the major prior to enrolling.

Evo: What are the biggest challenges to offering associate degree programs through universities?

RSA: One of the biggest is being a two-year program on a four-year campus – the perception that it is “lesser than.” It is different for sure but it isn’t less if it is providing students with a quality education to allow them to earn a credential that is marketable.

Another big challenge is cost. A student is a UNH undergraduate student regardless of the degree they are pursuing, so it is almost always less expensive to attend a community college (provided the same discipline of study is offered).

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Key Takeaways

  • Offering associate degree programs at four-year public universities creates a different access point for state citizens to enter into the flagship university.
  • The biggest challenge of offering the program is that students must pay the same tuition rate as four-year undergraduates, making community colleges the cheaper route to a degree.
  • However, among other benefits, students who choose to enroll in a four-year program upon earning their associate degree have a more seamless transfer process than those who come from the colleges.
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