POV: Earning an Associate Degree: The Achievement that Lasts a Lifetime
The College Completion Challenge and Call to Action was signed in November 2010 by six education agencies: Phi Theta Kappa, the American Association for Community Colleges, the Association of Community College Trustees, the League for Innovation in the Community College, the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, and the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Snead State President Robert Exley and Alabama Community College System Chancellor Freida Hill signed the Call to Action in December 2010, making SSCC the first community college in Alabama to commit to it.
The overarching goal of the initiative is to ensure that at least 55 percent of Americans hold a postsecondary degree by 2025. It is an ambitious goal, and particularly difficult for many states, such as Alabama, which already rank well below the national averages. According to data from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, Alabama ranks 40th among the United States in its graduation rate of associate degree-seeking students. Alabama has 19.8 percent of the state’s adult population reaching this level of college completion. The national average is 27.8 percent.
Snead State headed in the right direction two years ago when its leaders embarked upon a conceptual framework entitled “Finish What You Start.” Among the strategies that were deployed was an emphasis upon graduation from Snead State as the goal for all its students.
We see many students who leave Snead State before graduation. Many transfer early to four-year schools without receiving the benefit of obtaining an associate degree. Often students who left Snead prematurely, without an associate degree, ultimately dropped out of their transfer destination. Basically all they have to show for their years in college is a transcript. We want to change that. We want them to graduate from Snead State — an accomplishment will last a lifetime.
Jason Watts, Snead State associate dean for academic planning and research, notes that there is irrefutable data to show that those who complete the two-year degree prior to transfer will succeed at the university level at a higher level that the students who went directly to the four-year school. “Part of it is a justified sense of accomplishment,” he said. “Snead students know they can do the work. That feeds their confidence and their success.”
By several measures, Snead State is the most successful community college in the state in terms of transfer success.
Snead State was recently acknowledged at one of the largest professional development conferences for community colleges for their early leadership in the College Completion Initiative. At the International Conference on Teaching and Leadership Excellence hosted by NISOD at the University of Texas at Austin, Exley was a panelist with other community college leaders that focused on the initiative. Exley challenged community college leadership when he said that it is time for community college educators to ask themselves, “Do you really value the associate degree?”
The value of an associate degree is in the power it gives the recipient. A community college education is not as costly, so students commit less money while still receiving a high-quality college education. Students with an associate degree could earn as much as $8,000 per year more than a high school graduate. A college degree gives students an edge when they are job hunting, but those who transfer without earning that credential could find themselves at a disadvantage if their circumstances force them to enter the workforce prior to receiving any type of college degree. If they earn their associate degree prior to transferring, they are better prepared for what the future holds.
I want to challenge our community in the same spirit Exley challenged other community college leaders.
Do you really value the associate degree? As a potential student, do you aspire to achieve this milestone?
As an employer, do you actively seek employees who hold this credential? As family members, friends, or colleagues, do you encourage others to set their sights on earning an associate degree?
Will you join us in the College Completion Initiative by encouraging and supporting our students to “finish what they start?”
Larry Miller is the chief academic officer and chief student services officer at Snead State Community College. He holds a doctorate of philosophy and higher education administration from the University of Texas, where he also completed the Community College Leadership Program. He has been an employee of Snead State since 2009.
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