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Last Updated On: November 21st, 2021

Traditionally, there has been a divide between institutions of higher learning that offered associate’s degrees and institutions that offered bachelor’s degrees. This system works well for students who complete their degree programs, but can unfortunately leave some students behind if they don’t manage to complete their planned degree. If a student starts out at a two-year college they always have the option to transfer to a four-year school if they decide they want to continue their education. However, if a student starts a four-year program and then realizes they are not interested in completing their degree or is unable to for financial or family reasons, they will then be faced with no degree and potentially sizeable student debt, even though oftentimes they may have exceeded the number of credits that they would have needed to obtain an associate’s degree. Fortunately, many university systems have realized this unfortunately common problem and are taking steps to rectify it, such as offering associate’s degrees to students who complete enough credits within a four-year program to qualify for one.

Which schools are Offering Associate’s Degrees for Students Who Attended Four-Year Schools?

As of now, the only state universities with a concrete plan to offer students with the requisite credits from a four-year program an associate’s degree are the universities in the University of Colorado system, as the result of a new state law. However, some other states, such as New Hampshire offer associate’s degrees outside of their community college system. Even so, given the appeal of the University of Colorado program, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more states adopting something similar, especially if the Colorado program is shown to be a success.

What are the Potential Advantages of this New Program?

The aim of the new Colorado law is to give the thousands of Colorado students who completed enough credits to qualify for an associate’s degree under the new guidelines some of the credentialing and workplace advantages that they would have been entitled to had they completed a traditional associate’s degree. A retroactive associate’s degree rewards students for the hard work they did put in, and also would potentially give them a leg up in the job market. After all, people with associate’s degrees typically earn more than people with high school diplomas or some college but no credential. The hope is that this new program will help narrow that income gap. Additionally, there are many students who were doing well or even excelling in a four-year program when life events (i.e. financial pressures or family emergencies) required them to leave school. This new associate’s degree option is a good way to recognize the hard work they put in and also potentially give them a credential that can help them make up some of the time and money they put into their education or even give them a platform to return for a bachelor’s degree.

What Does this Mean for You?

If you are one of the many people in Colorado who left college without completing a bachelor’s degree, then, obviously, this new policy is most impactful for you. We recommend reaching out to your previous school to see if you qualify for a new degree under this program and what steps you’d need to take to obtain this diploma. Depending on your work and life situation, it may also be worth checking to see if this new diploma entitles you to any other benefits. Some employers offer automatic wage increases for educational attainment, hopefully yours is one of them! It could even help you save money on car insurance!

If you are currently applying to colleges and considering schools in the University of Colorado system, then the possibility of taking advantage of this program is something you may want to consider. However, we recommend only considering this program as a fallback. If you know (or even simply strongly suspect) that you’d like to obtain an associate’s degree rather than a bachelor’s degree, you are probably better off simply attending a community college. An associate’s degree from a community college will be much cheaper than one from a university, and can also offer more direct job training for professions that require a specialized associate’s degree (many of which can pay quite well).

If you are a current, former, or prospective student somewhere outside of Colorado then, of course, this program does not currently apply to you. However, if the Colorado program is a success, we may very well see the policy adopted in more places. If you are a student outside of Colorado who left a four-year program without a bachelor’s degree, it is worth keeping up with the news coming out of your university system, to see if they begin considering a similar program. You can also check in on some educational blogs to keep up with any breaking news in this area.

What sort of Impact will this Program Have?

While this program has the potential to grant associate’s degrees to thousands of Colorado students, it remains to be seen exactly what sort of impact this policy will have. While granting more degrees is certainly a positive step, it is unclear exactly what sort of change this could make for students in terms of their job prospects or future educational attainment. While holders of associate’s degrees typically earn more than people whose highest level of education is some college, it is not entirely clear how much of that wage gap simply boils down to a diploma. Many of the highest earning associate’s degree holders completed specialized pre-professional programs such as ones in medical equipment repair or to become geological technicians. Completing half of a program in a bachelor’s program is unlikely to have such direct appeal to employers.

Additionally, a small boost in income, while certainly welcome, is not necessarily going to offset the costs of two to three years of college and the potential debt such a student may have incurred. A bachelor’s degree, while expensive, will still usually pay for itself in wage increases over the course of someone’s lifetime. However, for students who do not manage to complete their four-year program, the financial calculus is less clear. They oftentimes will have paid nearly as much as their colleagues who managed to complete their degree with much less to show for it. A retroactive associate’s degree is a nice first step, but it certainly does not eliminate their student debt or fix the structural problems that may have prevented them from completing a degree in the first place.

Given the Limitations of this New Policy, What Other Steps Should Students, Universities, and Policymakers be Taking?

For students, in and outside of Colorado, our general college advice remains the same: do as well as you can in school and on standardized tests, consult your school counselor or other trusted adult for advice about what sort of school or program is right for you, and begin planning early. College is an expensive, consequential decision, so it is worth taking the time and care required to make sure you make the correct decisions. It is all well and good to keep this Colorado policy in mind as a potential boon if you begin attending a Colorado school but are unable or uninterested in finishing your bachelor’s degree, but given the financial realities of such a decision, it should not be your “plan A”. Instead, try to pick a degree and school that make financial, and educational sense for you from the get go, and only then consider contingency plans.

While we applaud Colorado for taking this first step towards increasing educational access and recognizing the achievements of students who do not fit the traditional educational profile, we urge them and other states and university systems to consider some of the larger structural issues such as costs or student preparedness that cause so many students to be unable to finish their degrees in the first place. This new policy is only such a pressing need because so many students were unable to finish their bachelor’s programs, so it behooves schools to tackle this problem from multiple directions. More resources can be dedicated towards reducing costs for students to attend and finish school, helping students adequately prepare for and choose the right college experience for them, and creating an environment where students can thrive once they get to college.

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