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7.5 Years to an Associate's Degree

The barriers of completion and retention of 2-year programs.

Photo of Hovsep Agop
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Mark earned his associate’s degree after being in the program for 7.5 years. Most of our conversation was around his experiences in obtaining his associates degree.

Why did you attend higher education?
Mark pursued higher education for two reasons. Strangely, a fight with a close friend was motivation to register for classes to be the best he can. Second, he was very inspired with the way school is portrayed on the TV Series, The Gilmore Girls.

Why did you stay and what makes others stick through?
The biggest factor Mark saw in those who stayed to complete their degree is self discipline and determination. If you are easily tempted to get off track, you will have a hard time sticking through so you have to have your priorities straight.

Mark also said that having education available at a lower cost also makes it okay to fail because there is not as much on the line. There are also socio-economic factors, such as family problems, students with low economic backgrounds, and comments to get to college. There are also challenges when the families of the students don’t understand what they’re doing. Living situations are also different, and students may have friends that are not in college that deter them from staying at school. He says it’s like the elliptical, if you have no drive you’re not going to make.

Mark kept going because he found something he liked, won awards, and got his own column in the school newspaper. He was given a scholarship, was inspired, and started a magazine. School became more than school, it was a platform to find your passion, building a community around it, and travel to conventions that feature respected speakers in the industry.

What are the barriers for graduation?
Mark discussed how math and English placement tests set back students. What is supposed to be 2 years doubles if you don’t score high on these tests, because you are placed in a series of classes that can take up to 2 years to complete before you can take regular level English or math. He talked about how he and his classmates had to find a loophole and take a high level class at another school to override math classes that were impossible to pass.

What was your experiences with the quality of classes and class offerings?
Mark said his heart was not into most of the classes offered and classes like oceanography and psychology felt dated. He said they should be teaching classes that actually help students in the long run, like how to pay your credit card bill on time, courses on how to treat other people, and overcoming fear and doubt in your work.

Was college affordable for you?
Mark qualified for financial aid for the first 5 years, then got a letter saying financial aid would only cover courses that he needs to graduate. He didn’t feel like the paperwork that had to be filled out wasn’t worth it and paid for his last classes himself. He believes that community college is mostly affordable, especially in comparison to 4-year colleges. It’s may not be affordable for people who don’t have income or for people who have issues prioritizing what they do with their income.

What do you think of online degrees?
He does not believe there is such a thing as an online degree, and that education barely works when you are there in person. He feels that open courseware from MIT and Harvard are a good way for them to give back to the community, but it’s still the difference between quality steak and going to McDonalds. 

What does an affordable quality education mean to you?
Mark feels that education would work better if the classes were 30 mins or one hour. Where for the first 10 minutes you learn and then you take action. Additionally, education would have more quality if the things that are a waste of time are cut out of the curriculum. For example, for a journalism class, you could teach the class and then send them out the same day to bring back a story.

Would you consider another degree?
Mark would be interested in a degree taught by talented faculty with a proven track record. He brought examples like “How to be a B**** Like Me,” taught by Chelsea Handler as a comedy class, or “Amy Polar’s Acting School.” One that shows promise, they educate and they look for talent. When they find a place for the person they utilize it.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

What stood out to me was the point where school becomes more than school. When students are learning but they are completely engaged through experiences like conferences, activities and competitions. How can this type of environment be the norm for the future of education?

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Photo of Joanna Spoth

Thanks for the interview insights, Hovsep!