Is It Time for a New Degree?

David L James and Marc Sheehan
Innovation Showcase

Since the launch of the American Graduation Initiative in 2009, the call to increase college graduation rates and to create a better educated workforce for the jobs of the future has become nearly universal. According to Former President Obama, speaking at the University of Texas on August 9, 2010, “in a single generation, [the U.S. has] fallen from first place to 12th place in college graduation rates for young adults" (as cited in de Nies, 2010, para. 3). He advocated for America to “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020 (as cited in Fry, 2017, para. 1).

There are three primary ways to accomplish this feat: (1) provide more financial and academic support to all college students; (2) provide ample funding for higher education—teachers, facilities, research, etc.; and (3) lower the academic standards for a degree. Although laudable, the first two steps seem unlikely, if not impossible, in the current economic and political climate; the third course of action is unworthy of consideration.

Some universities promote a three-year degree as a streamlined path to graduation, an accelerated approach that saves time and money for students willing and academically able to pursue it (de Vise, 2002). The success of this approach is marginal at best. For example, at one university of 17,500 students, only five enrolled in the three-year option (de Vise, 2011). This degree is not a feasible track for the majority of college students for both practical and academic reasons, and there is no educational evidence indicating that today’s students are more academically prepared for the rigors of college than in the past. If anything, the evidence points to the fact that students are less prepared (Engdahl, 2012); researchers estimate that forty to sixty percent of incoming students enroll in remedial coursework (Tierney & Duncheon, 2013). A major testing agency, ACT, “indicates only about a third of high school students are college-ready” (“College Preparedness Lacking,” 2012). That lack of preparation can be a factor working against accelerated degree programs.

Time for a Change

This may be the time and place to consider an interim credential, offered at community colleges, that would serve the needs of students, colleges, employers, and accrediting bodies. With the rising costs of college making graduation much harder on students and families, the creation of an intermediate degree that recognizes significant academic achievement may make sense. A new degree step—the apprentice degree—could be created as an important credential for millions of college students with at least ninety semester hours of credit, either from four-year colleges, two-year institutions, or any combination. As the name suggests, these degree candidates are in the apprentice stage—students who have not yet completed a traditional four-year degree, but who have successfully devoted significant time, energy, and effort toward that goal.

The apprentice degree would be a stepping-stone to a standard credential, one that recognizes the accomplishment of completing ninety credits of academic work and acknowledges that the student is just one year’s worth of credit away from earning a bachelor’s degree. This new degree status would create a win-win-win situation for students, employers, community colleges, and universities.

How Would It Help?

First, in an era when completing a degree is far more costly and difficult due to public divestment, students deserve recognition for earning ninety credits in higher education. This credential is a safety valve, a validation of their progress toward a bachelor’s degree. Some students discontinue their education for valid personal reasons; others stop out to work and gain valuable experience. In any case, students could stop attending college for any period of time with a limited credential in hand. If community colleges adopted the apprentice degree, then, presumably, standards and programs would be created to help these students transfer and complete a four-year degree.

Second, the apprentice degree would tell a prospective employer that students have successfully completed ninety credits toward a bachelor’s degree. The degree would help to validate students’ academic readiness for work and assure employers that employees with this degree are close to earning a traditional four-year degree. Additionally, the apprentice degree would be an incentive for employers to help new employees complete their bachelor’s degrees, since those employers would understand how much coursework truly needs to be completed. Employers who help with tuition costs would be more inclined to hire these apprentice degree holders.

Third, the apprentice degree would enhance community college graduation rates, which have become a crucial accountability measure by governments and accreditation bodies. Instead of punishing colleges for students who stop out for legitimate reasons beyond the control of the institution, the apprentice degree would be a new benchmark that would show state legislators that their community colleges are, indeed, making good use of taxpayers’ dollars.

Is a New Degree Necessary?

The naysayers will ask, “Why do we need this new degree status?” One response is “Why not?” The tradition of 60-credit associate degrees and 120-credit bachelor’s degrees may have served higher education fairly well up to this point in time, but we’re in a new era. From the post-World War II degree boom fueled by the GI Bill to today, we’re facing an entirely new geopolitical world with vastly different economic realities. It may be time to shake up the paradigm. Some estimate that there are thirty-seven million students in the U.S. who started college but never finished (de Vise, 2010). If only ten percent of them are three-fourths of the way through, that represents 3.7 million students who could hold an apprentice degree to help them further their careers. If a student has earned ninety credits at a two-year college, what is wrong with awarding him an apprentice degree? If another earned thirty-four credits at a community college and fifty-eight more at a four-year university, but stopped out to have a baby, why not recognize her academic achievement?

What are the negatives of this new degree? Some might argue that students will stop attending college after earning the apprentice degree. This is unlikely since the apprentice degree’s value would be less than a bachelor’s degree, just as a B.A. marks a station less than a master’s or doctorate. It would clearly not be a terminal degree; it would be a complementary credential that would, for many, facilitate the completion of the four-year degree. The apprentice degree could do wonders for students’ self-esteem and encourage them to continue on their college journey. It could salvage the academic careers of students who are forced to drop out due to work, marriage, tragedy, illness, accident, and hundreds of other legitimate reasons.

Today’s Funding Reality

This country is not on a path to adequately funding community colleges and universities, and it is certainly not on a path to helping every college student graduate debt-free. In fact, the trend in one state after another is shifting the cost from public funding to personal and private means through increased tuition and fees. Little in recent history suggests that merely calling for higher graduation rates will lead to higher graduation rates. In addition, no reasonable person, institution, employer, or agency would argue for dumbing-down the requirements for a bachelor’s degree so that more people could graduate.

This new credential, the apprentice degree, seems worth creating. After all, if students and families are shouldering the burden of producing knowledge workers (not the government), the society should develop new venues for recognizing and rewarding the people navigating on those difficult journeys. As Tom Robbins (1990) wrote in his novel, Jitterbug Perfume, “to achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought” (p. 104). A dialogue on how to more efficiently and effectively create a highly educated citizenry and workforce needs to start in earnest and take a few imaginative leaps forward.


College preparedness lacking, forcing students into developmental coursework,

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de Vise, D. (2010, September 29). Adults with ‘some college’ key to Obama’s graduation goal. Washington Post. Retrieved from

de Vise, D. (2011, June 15). Three-year degrees: A closer look. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Engdahl, T. (2012, February 7). College remediation rates rise. Ed News Colorado. Retrieved from

Fry, R. (2017). U.S. still has a ways to go in meeting Obama’s goal of producing more college grads. Fact Tank. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Robbins, T. (1990). Jitterbug perfume. New York: Bantam.

Tierney, W. G. & Duncheon, J. C. (2013, November 8). Wrong answer on remediation. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

David L. James, Ed.D., is an English professor at Oakland Community College in Farmington Hills, Michigan, and Marc Sheehan, M.F.A., is Emeritus Communications Officer, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.