The Bachelor’s Degree Program and One-Size-Fits-All Education

If you’ve attended anything like a traditional college, you know the standard four-year drill: you take two years of liberal arts courses before choosing a “major” and then specializing towards the end, perhaps preparing for a real job, or perhaps for more, and more specialized, schooling.

But as New America’s Mary Alice McCarthy notes in a piece in the new issue of the Washington Monthly, this general-then-narrower approach doesn’t work for all students. In fact, using the example of two of her nephews, McCarthy suggests the traditional progression short-changes both those who are more stimulated by practical skills training, after which they may be prepared to learn abstract concepts, and those who obtain those practical skills but do not get credit for them when pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

There is, however, one state that’s changed the old patterns:

State and community colleges in the state of Washington figured this out years ago and offer a variety of options for students who want to begin their college career with technical training. Evergreen State College allows students to earn an upside-down bachelor’s degree, with the technical education coming first, followed by two years of broader, general education. The program is designed for students like [her nephew] Jeffrey, with a more flexible approach to learning that honors the purpose of the general education requirements more than a rigid set of rules around exactly how many credits a student must have to graduate, and when. Under this approach, students can use the last two years of college to round out their education with courses designed to give them a broader understanding of the historical and social context in which they live and work, along with addressing any gaps in writing, analytical, or math skills. For many students who have been out in the world working and applying their skills already, the opportunity to pull back and see the big picture can be very appealing.

Other community colleges in Washington offer a bachelor’s of applied science, or BAS, a four-year degree designed explicitly to build on a two-year technical degree and provide a seamless pathway for students to continue their education. Some of the programs, like the BAS in manufacturing operations at Clover Park Technical College, add business and management skills to a two-year program teaching students how to operate and repair complex machinery. Others, like the BAS in radiologic technology at Bellevue College, allow students to continue deepening their technical skills in a particular field.

The programs are still relatively new, but early outcome data is encouraging. According to a 2014 impact evaluation, 75 percent of graduates were employed two years out, with average earnings ranging from more than $80,000 for graduates of the radiology programs to $27,000 for those earning an applied management degree, with an average of $37,000 across all programs—comparable to the earnings of students graduating with traditional four-year degrees. Some students had transitioned successfully into graduate programs. The BAS degree is proving popular and growing: since 2010, when the degrees were first launched, enrollments have gone from just over a hundred students to nearly 1,000 in 2014. The colleges are planning for continued growth.

McCarthy mentions and addresses concerns that this kind of programs either make students with a technical bent waste time in bachelor’s degree programs or debate those programs’ standards. But in general, she concludes, what should really concern us is the irrationality of a one-size-fits-all model for college.

It is often said in the United States that no member of Congress or leading CEO started their career in a community college technical training program—pathways to positions of leadership start with a bachelor’s degree. Is this true because graduates of technical training programs are not fit to become leaders, or because we don’t allow them to? Try saying the same thing to someone in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. Many politicians, senior managers, and even CEOs have come up through those countries’ impressive vocational training systems. The issue isn’t that a career that starts with technical training can’t lead to more advanced learning and skills. It is that our higher education policies simply don’t allow for it—and that’s just a failure of imagination.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.