Think, Know, Prove: Degrees of Difference

Think, Know, Prove is an occasional Saturday feature, where a topic with both mystery and importance is posted for community discussion. The title is a shortened version of the Investigative Mantra: What do we think, what do we know, what can we prove? and everything from wild speculation to resource referencing fact is welcome here.

So, last fall at the Q &A after the President welcomed back the faculty at HW Faculty Development Week, Anthony Escuadro (Physical Science) asked Don (President) a question about something we’d heard a lot about at DWFDW–namely, the big increases in degrees earned by CCC students. Anthony asked about what percentage of the increase in degrees was made up of increases in Associates in Arts (AA) degrees versus, say, Associates in General Studies degrees (AGS). Don said he didn’t know, but he recognized the importance of the question and said a little about some of the background, including a mention of how, originally, “a decision had been made” to default students onto AGS tracks, but that the presidents had now recognized that to be a mistake.

Anthony’s question was one that I had also wondered about amid the glowing reports of the “increased numbers of degrees” and, though I didn’t exactly know the answer yet, I knew I had it sitting on my desk at home.

A few weeks earlier, you see, annoyed with the annual budget nonsense at the K-12 and District levels, I had printed out the 2014 budget and an old one from 2009 (since the 2014 budget had numbers running back to 2008 in it) in order to get a look see at some things. Part of what I find annoying about budgets is that they generally only ever look forward and they ALWAYS leave a lot of things unsaid. Predictions and plans and org charts from earlier budgets are forgotten or ignored for the most part except for the very recent past, and the recent is everything. Speaking as someone who likes to read things from thousands of years ago, I find that a little shortsighted and it always galls me that the budgets don’t seem to talk with each other, that there is so little continuity from one to the next, much less to the ones from a decade ago. (With a little luck and better planning and enough need to procrastinate, there will be another one of these later in the year, but with spending and staffing numbers. If you ever want a giggle, take a look at the org chart from one of those budgets about ten years back. But I digress.)

Anyway, while making some charts about spending, I happened across some charts showing the numbers and types of degrees granted, and I found similar charts in the 2009 budget going back to 2003. Ah-ha! I thought. How interesting. Now we can get inside the numbers a bit and see what this “degree increase” is all about.

All I had to do was type up some tables and whip up some charts and bing0-bango, we would know if it was true, as some of us feared, that all or most or a big, big hunk of the “increase in credentials of economic value” was due to an increase in the conferral of our least valuable degree, the Associates in General Studies (a.k.a., the AGS), which is a non-transfer degree for students who are in college for “personal interest.”

Well, it took four months, but I finally built my tables and whipped up my charts, and have a tentative answer–the news is not great, but not as bad as I’d feared either. Maybe you’ll see something different. The details (with numbers and tables and charts and pretty colors for the math-phobic and artsy types) are below the break. Read on if you think you can handle the truth.

DEFINITIONS: Here is some important background that you may need to make sense of the numbers that follow. In a conversation I had with various newish faculty during early registration,it became clear to me that the differences between our degrees are not universally understood, even by the faculty. So, first, a quick primer. Feel free to skip this section if you already know all about it. If not, carry on.

The first thing to know is that City Colleges credentials can be divided into two families–degrees and certificates. Certificates are divided into basic (a set curriculum of less than 30 hours) and advanced (more than 30 hours). Degrees are more complicated. There are a number of them, but they are not all offered by all of the colleges. The four common ones, offered by all of the colleges are  the:

  • Associates in Arts (AA)
  • Associates in Science (AS)
  • Associates in Applied Science (AAS–in a variety of subjects from Accounting to HVAC to Child Development, Addiction Studies, and Social Work)
  • Associates in General Studies (AGS)

Others include the Associates in Engineering Science (AES), the Associates in Fine Arts (AFA–versions include Music Education, Music Performance, Studio Art, Art Education), and the Associates in Arts in Teaching (AAT) in multiple areas.

All of these degrees are differentiated by both hours and required classes, but perhaps most importantly they are dividable into unofficial categories of “transfer programs” and “non-transfer programs.”

If you go to the CCC website to the advising search page and select “All Areas of Study” and “All degrees/Awards” and then check the box for “Only Include Transfer Programs” you’ll see the list of transfer degrees. To save you the trouble, the lists look like this:

Transfer                                                             Non-Transfer

AA                                                                            AAS

AS                                                                            AGS*

 AES                                                                                     .

AFA*                                                                                   .

AAT*                                                                                    .

(*NOTE: Site information about these degrees is incomplete)

What’s the difference? Mostly it lies in the purpose of the degree and the General Education requirements. The AAS, for example, is an occupational degree, meaning the idea is that a student would get the degree and go straight to work (as opposed to going on to further study and receipt of a bachelor’s).

The aim of the AGS degree is to provide “students the ability to explore a broad range of college-level courses to develop new skills or investigate a personal interest.  Courses may transfer individually to a four-year university, but the degree as a whole is not designed for transfer or as an occupational degree.” The non-transfer degrees are consequently light on General Education, requiring only 20 hours as opposed to the 38 or 39 hours of General Education required for the AA and AS degrees.

For the AGS, for example, students take English 101 (but not English 102 or Speech, as in the AA and AS), two humanities classes (instead of three), two social science classes (instead of three), and two classes in either math OR science , which might mean one of each or two of one and NONE of the other. Compare that to the AA requirements in which students take a math and two sciences–one physical, one life, one of which must have a lab, and you can see the appeal for students who struggle with math or science (which is still 90% or more of our incoming freshmen, judging by math placement). Beyond those very basic general education requirements, the other 40 hours of the degree are made up of electives. 40 hours of anything they want.

So, a student receiving an AGS degree might have taken English 102, History of Modern Philosophy, Calculus, Organic Chemistry, Physics, Latin American Literature and four semesters of Spanish or they might have taken a much less rigorous program of study of their own compilation. Anecdotally, I have seen enough cases where students are on the verge of graduating without competence in one or more areas including writing, reading, thinking, or quantificational/scientific literacy to be troubled. Over the years I have encountered and usually ended up failing, maybe a dozen students who were on the verge of graduating but couldn’t read or write at a college (sometimes even high school) level. When it’s happened, those students were almost always about to earn their AGS. I have failed plenty of students pursuing AA and AS degrees, but few or none of them were close to graduation.

The upshot is that students who graduate with AGS degrees (or AAS degrees, for that matter) are not required to show the same amount of competence as students pursuing transfer degrees. Again, this does not mean that all AGS degrees are bad or even equal–they aren’t, but neither does the receipt of one automatically equate to what we (and I think the general public) would consider “college-educated,” a concept that I think is better captured for most in the more comprehensive IAI General Education Core Curriculum that makes up the heart of the “transfer degrees.”

Ok, so enough of that for now. On to the data about the increase in degree attainment, by type of degree. Here is the full document I put together in .pdf format. Below are screen shots of sections of it, which I had to use to make the tables fit. If you find them hard to read, try the link to the full thing, and please accept my apologies for not being tech savvy enough to make them fit in their original format.

The sources I used for data are the FY14 Budget and the FY09 Budget (for the 2003-2006 data). One note about method; for the first column of each chart I averaged the data from 2003-2006 to provide a kind of flattened baseline, since it was around 2006 or 2007 that we first started hearing about the big push for graduation and in anticipation of some strike related volatility in the numbers. I did not find district wide data for that period, however, so I compiled the district wide data from the averages of the individual colleges. It’s an imperfect solution, but to some extent irrelevant to the question under consideration. The data for 2008, 2010, and 2012–for both the district as a whole and the individual colleges–is all available in the FY14 Budget.

FINDINGS: One thing that is clear is that we are definitely giving out more degrees of every type. In other words, the gains are not limited entirely to non-transfer degree types. I think we can all agree that’s a good thing. More AA/AS degrees, means more students transferring (or able to) and walking in as Juniors with all of their credits. But there is a clear and somewhat disturbing trend, given all of the above, which is that the percentage of total degrees that are “transfer-degrees” is dropping, and quickly, now making up less than half of the degrees granted by CCC. That is, unfortunately, a point lost and unmentioned when the scorecards are presented. Anyway, here is the data for the district:

District Degree DataBut what is happening at the colleges themselves? Are their differences from college to college? Indeed. But before we go there, which colleges matter most in terms of degrees? What are their numbers relative to each other and how have those changed over the last decade? Here’s your chart:

Degree ShareSo, in terms of the percentage of the district’s degrees granted by each college, Daley (-3.4%), Olive-Harvey (-2.1%), Malcolm X (-.9%), and Kennedy King (-.1%). In other words, though they are giving out more degrees, they are granting a smaller percentage of the district’s degrees than they averaged from 2003-2006, which means Truman (+2.9%), Wright (+1.2%), and Harold (+.7%) have gained share, not entirely surprising given the fact that those are the three schools with the biggest populations of credit-seeking students. Anyway, on the the colleges.

Here is Daley’s chart. It’s interesting that President Aybar’s presentation to the board in December didn’t mention that the increase in degrees granted at Daley is almost entirely due to increases in non-transfer degrees, nor Daley’s declining share of the total degrees granted in the District. I don’t mean to pick on him, though. The same is true for all of the Presidents’ presentations. Daley’s chart looks like this:

Daley Degree DataKennedy-King’s numbers look like this, showing clear growth in AGS and AAS (i.e., non-transfer degrees) as a percentage of the whole and seemingly at an increasing rate, along with clear growth of transfer degrees:

Kennedy-King Degree DataMalcolm X’s numbers appear thusly–a slight bump in transfer degrees and a huge jump in non-transfer degrees:

Malcom X Degree DataOlive-Harvey’s degree numbers show a gaudy 2333% increase in AGS degrees (which you can see in the big purple bump below, from an average of 1 over 2003  to 2006 (less than 1% of the degrees they granted in that period )to 73 in 2012, accounting for 23.6% of last year’s degrees. They also showed increases in AA degrees, though not close to the same extent:

Olive-Harvey Degree DataTruman’s numbers are growing more equally than some of the others as shown here, but they too, show a big bulge in non-transfer degrees (here AAS, along with a slight growth in AGS), but with solid growth in AA degrees in absolute terms and a holding steady of those as a percentage of total degrees (after a drop in 2010). The number of AS degrees has also grown, but much more slowly than the other degrees, and so they make up a smaller percentage of Truman’s degree totals than in previous years:

Truman Degree DataWright has the biggest numbers by far, accounting for more than 22% of the district’s degrees. Their numbers show clear increases across the board in absolute terms but in 2012 42.2% of their degrees were non-transfer degrees, up from an average of 21.9% over the period 2003-2006:

Wright Degree DataFinally, there’s us, Harold Washington. Our numbers show big growth in transfer degrees (+80.3% since 2008), but even faster growth (in percentage terms) of AGS degrees. See that big purple bump there? In 2008, almost three out of four of our degrees were transfer degrees. In 2012, we’re giving out more degrees, but a declining percentage of them (65.6%) are good for transfer.

Harold Degree DataAll of which is to say…What do you thing? What do you know? What can you prove?

7 thoughts on “Think, Know, Prove: Degrees of Difference

  1. I can’t believe the amount of work you have done here Philodave- Bravo.
    May I add my two cents about the increase in non transfer degrees? I work primarily with students who are working toward the AAS degree. For many of those students, this degree qualifies them for job advancement and a certain degree of job security. For others, they see this degree (even though it is considered a non-transfer degree) as a stepping stone to a 4-year degree, while having the advantage of keeping them employed.

    I am personally excited by this increase. This means that more students are achieving a degree – any degree- which is better than the alternative. In the state of Illinois the number of students we see in the Child Development world who have “some college” are staggering. I am talking about people who have 100-200 college credits that don’t add up to anything. Encouraging the completion of a degree is paramount to ensuring employment for these students.

    There are huge barriers, seemingly insurmountable brick walls, that have been built between the AAS in ECE and the BA, or BA plus certification. Since I began teaching at HWC in 2000 the changes in entrance requirements, degree completion requirements, transfer agreements, licensure rules, and required teaching content has changed nearly every year. That means, from year to year, we don’t know what the future holds for our students whether they are working toward the AAS or the AA.

    The State of Illinois has received a huge chunk of the Race to the Top funds with over $71 million earmarked for early childhood. Many of the Child Development faculty across the district are partnering with 4-year institutions, to apply for some of this money to work on articulation initiatives so that our students can move from us to our 4-year partners with little credit loss, and earn those coveted BA degrees.

    Most of us agree that these articulation agreements will be between the AAS (not the AA) and the BA. That means, we will need to start redefining the AAS degree as both a career degree and a transfer degree. The AAS is a better choice for so many of our students (Remember, AAS students, according to the charts above, make up nearly half of our graduating students. All of these students sit in your English, math, science, humanities, etc. classes.)

    With very little adjustment, a little bit of vision, and some flexible and forward-thinking administrators, we can advise our AAS students to use their elective options to take the other gen ed. requirements to make up the difference between the AAS and the AA. Adding English 102, Speech, a humanities class, and a social science class, gets them within spitting distance of the AA (without the foreign language requirement, which NOBODY requires for transfer and is standing in the way of a lot of students and graduation).

    A word about the AGS – it is bad. Don’t recommend it. I feel for those students who were duped into completing it over the past few years. They are not employable nor able to transfer. Boo.

    BTW- I was a French major and I am a true believer in learning and speaking other languages. However, in practical terms, this new requirement has messed a lot of people up, and pushed many students toward the AGS.

    I guess my point here is that there is value in both kinds of degrees. Encouraging completion through good advising, early advising, and relationship-building, whether a transfer or non transfer degree is a good thing.

    • Yeah, I feared I wasn’t very clear there. Sorry about that; I didn’t mean to paint AAS and AGS degrees with the same brush, but I realize that I did by not saying more about the AAS. Thanks for addressing my incompleteness.

      I agree that the AAS is often, usually, a valuable degree and makes a lot of sense as a so-called “stackable” credit for students who want to get to work and keep going to school and that it can be useful for transfer, too. I should have said all of that. I think it makes sense that those are growing, too, and I’m pleased to see it, especially in light of the potential sun-setting hootenanny a while back.

      I guess I still have a little concern that some of the growth is due to reasons other than those, though–maybe colleagues at the schools where AAS degrees are growing a lot and fast, such as Daley, would be able to provide info on whether it is a function of informed intent or a late-game redirection. Without getting inside those AAS numbers a little bit, it’s hard to know exactly what is going on with it, but as you suggest, that is a much more minor concern (and probably ought to be treated as a GOOD thing rather than a concern) than the rapid increase in AGS degrees at some schools, such as…ours, especially given the pressure (real or imagined) on advisors, many of whom are new and might not be clear on the differences in play, to get degrees into students’ hands.

  2. Much appreciate the reply. I know you weren’t really painting the AGS and AAS with the same brush, but I, too, fear that others do and they are not at all the same. I don’t really think the AAS is a late-game redirection because most AAS students are working all along on the heavy content required to complete that degree. Our AAS requires 32 credits in CD which means students are taking those classes throughout their entire time at the college. Since those courses can only be applied to the AAS degree (none of them are currently IAI approved, which will hopefully change soon) you don’t end up with an AAS, you choose an AAS.
    The AGS is a default degree for students who have lots of classes that don’t add up to either the AA or the AAS. They end up with the AGS as a means of completing something. The vast majority of those students (anecdotally- I have no numbers to back this up) ended up with AGS because it did not require the foreign language requirement. Now they have a nontransferable, non employable degree. Don’t even get me started about how the new rules about financial aid will possibly prohibit those same students from coming back to finish a real degree. It is a hot mess.

    • That all seems right to me, especially the part about the degrees having a long runway–the same is true for the others that I looked at, too. You’re right that it isn’t the kind of thing that someone could get steered into at the last minute.

      I should have been more careful in my distinguishing of those degrees. So, it would seem that the news is better than I first thought! Excepting the AGS related stuff, that is.

  3. Here’s another study down the road to find the quantitative evidence, Dave and Jen. During the years between 2009-2012, when we looked at students who could have the hours to earn an AGS, the biggest obstacle across the board to earning an AA or an AS seemed to be math.

    • @John – No doubt – math is a huge obstacle. We have had the added fun of incorrect catalogs over the years that allowed students to take math OR science for the AAS. This got a lot of students around the math requirement. For years, this was true at some campuses but not others. We went through a small period that allowed students to take math OR science OR CIS to complete the degree. Good times.

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