An Ivy League Degree for Nontraditional Students

A Penn program bows to market realities.

When an Ivy League school breaks with its storied past by introducing a degree for nontraditional students, the relevance for other institutions of higher learning can’t be overlooked. In 2016, the University of Pennsylvania created such a program, leading to the B.A.A.S. (Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences).

The motivation for the change, according to Dean Steven Fluharty of the School of Arts & Sciences, was the recognition that working adults and other under-served students possessed valuable knowledge and skills that might be useful in a current or future career. All that was needed was the opportunity to demonstrate the connection to prospective employers.

One problem at Penn was that programs that deviate from tradition at elite schools tend to face uphill battles. To name just one example, the graduate department of journalism at UCLA was disbanded in the late 1960s when newly-appointed executive vice-chancellor David Saxon ruled it non-academic. (I received my M.S. from the department in ’64.) Saxon succeeded even though Cal-Berkeley and USC offered the same course of study leading to a master’s degree. It is difficult to imagine that similar voices were not heard when an Ivy League school introduced an online program.

Programs that deviate from tradition at elite schools tend to face uphill battles.One argument against online programs geared to the immediate marketplace is that they lower standards. That hasn’t been the case at Penn. In fact, the program’s senior portfolio, containing eight artifacts that are required for the degree, demands a level of rigor on par with any master’s thesis. Among these artifacts are videos linking student work to real issues in the workplace.

Since portfolio assessment is known for its highly subjective evaluation criteria, the program’s rigor had to be proved at the outset if the new degree was to be viable. When students present their portfolios before a graduation committee, much depends on satisfying the specific requirements laid out beforehand. As in the case of oral exams for advanced degrees, program candidates face a panel of professors who question them and then decide if their answers pass muster. Members of the panel don’t always agree among themselves, but a majority must confirm that a student’s work is worthy of passing marks.

Defenders of such academic portfolios maintain that, despite their subjectivity, their use constitutes authentic assessment. Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University who has studied assessment systems in dozens of states, points to other countries where students are assessed on science inquiries, research papers, and technology products. Perhaps the best argument for portfolio-based learning is provided by Brett Bradshaw, director of strategic communications for the Coalition of Essential Schools: “Standardized tests are just snapshots that measure mostly the ability to recall facts, whereas performance-based assessments measure the ability to synthesize information, compare and contrast, look for different points of view, and think critically.”

In Penn’s program, students are encouraged to present their artifacts in a number of creative ways, far beyond what is acceptable in many traditional graduate programs. These include audio and visual presentations, reports, and case studies. Students are further asked to demonstrate how their artifacts make them particularly attractive to employers. They can do so via LinkedIn profile or virtual interview. The immediate goal for students’ artifacts is that they will serve as digital proof of the transferable learning that students have developed in the program.

Yet the senior portfolio is also intended as a way for students to gain self-reflection. Although it’s difficult to place a pecuniary value on reflective writing and other practices gained from the program, the same can be said of other traditional arts and sciences curricula. The very nature of the Penn program’s senior portfolio has helped students gain a better understanding of where they’ve been and where they want to go. As a result, students can no longer claim that so much of what they’re learning is totally irrelevant to their lives, an assertion that has been haunting higher education for a generation.

The program goes a step beyond outdated thinking about black and Hispanic students.With a bachelor’s degree now widely considered essential for upward mobility, colleges and universities have begun expressing their commitment to inclusion and diversity. Until recently, that has meant focusing almost exclusively on race, in the belief that blacks and Hispanics most need a leg up. Penn, however, has gone a step beyond this outdated thinking with a degree aimed at working adults of all races. To date, it has received high marks from students from all walks of life, according to Dean Fluharty, as students benefit from applying the hard and soft skills they develop in the program to their professional and personal lives.

Penn’s B.A.A.S. degree can serve as a viable model for other colleges and universities struggling to compete for students. With the cost of a four-year degree continuing to skyrocket, pressure will build to find ways to convince prospective students that a bachelor’s degree is a sound investment. Although the Ivies are less likely to feel the need to innovate than their counterparts, even they are not immune from demands for relevancy. And less prestigious schools can enhance their reputation and desirability by designing their own version of Penn’s new degree.

One way of doing so is to gear degree programs to the unique needs of the local economy. Colleges and universities in the Deep South, for example, will offer different curricula than those offered in the Northeast. Yet all applied degree programs will emphasize communication skills and the ability to apply knowledge to complex scenarios with insight. These competencies constitute the essence of critical thinking, which continues to be the ultimate goal of a college education.

Whether the appeal of Penn’s online degree will hold up in the years ahead is still unclear. That said, a bachelor’s degree returns a lifetime $1.2 million premium over a high-school diploma, according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. But so much depends on the major. It’s highly unlikely that a gender-studies major, for example, will make more than a plumber with a high-school diploma. As a result, it may be time to recognize the value of non-theoretical knowledge in a fast-changing world. Penn’s B.A.A.S. is a step in the right direction.

Walt Gardner, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.