Four Year Degrees Aren’t What They Used To Be

By Nancy Druart

Like all mothers, I want the best for my children, which of course includes a rigorous education that will prepare them for a long and happy career. For decades, society has dictated that this means all students must graduate from four-year colleges.

This cultural goal initially seemed like an obvious good: after all, who could be against “college for all”? But, as time passed, a nasty prejudice sprang up, and some now view anything but a four-year college degree as only “second-best.” This social stigma misrepresents the truth about higher education and job prospects.

Put bluntly, a four-year degree isn’t what it used to be. Depending on the trade, graduates from a technical-oriented associate’s degree program can garner higher wages than those from a traditional four-year college.

Today, nearly half of recent four-year-college graduates are unemployed or underemployed, and this bad news is not simply due to our anemic economy. Since the 1970s (when the “college-for-all” craze hit its stride), the percentage of underemployed graduates has increased steadily. Adding insult to injury, student-loan debt has ballooned to $1.2 trillion. For the first time in history, student-loan debt exceeds national credit-card debt.

But this bleak outlook brightens when you look at skilled workers, for whom demand is so high that many employers report they cannot find sufficient numbers to fill advertised slots. How do you go about getting an education for such positions? The answer is by acquiring a postsecondary (that is, after high school) certificate or two-year technical degree, both of which take less time and money than a four-year academic degree.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, in partnership with College Measures, now makes available the first-year earnings of recent graduates from all Texas two- and four-year public institutions. All high school students and their parents should read their recent report. Among its findings, students completing “technical-oriented associate’s degree programs” in Texas, a year after graduation, enjoy average first-year median earnings of “more than $50,000, just over $11,000 more than graduates of bachelor’s degree programs across the state.” Moreover, some two-year technical degrees average roughly $30,000 more than students who completed “academically oriented two-year degrees.”

The report finds that the first-year earnings of graduates from different Texas community colleges “vary widely.” Academic associate’s degree salaries range “from around $10,000 (Ranger College) to more than $30,000 for graduates from the Trinity Campus of Tarrant County Junior College and from Central Texas Community College.” But starting salaries for graduates with technical degrees range from about “$20,000 for graduates from Clarendon College to more than $65,000 for graduates from seven community colleges”: College of the Mainland Community College District, San Jacinto College South Campus, Tarrant County Junior College, South Campus, Galveston College, El Centro College, Trinity Valley Community College, and Weatherford College.

According to the report, “certificates are one of the fastest-growing credentials.” This is hardly surprising, given the starting salaries of certificate holders. For example, the average starting salaries of certificate holders in Business Administration/Management ($36,987) exceed those with academic associate’s degrees in the same field of study by $11,000.

In criminal justice-police sciences, the median first-year earnings of certificate holders ($48,230) surpass academic associate’s degree recipients in criminal justice by more than $24,000 and those with a technical associate’s degree by about $11,500.

Another study, conducted by the Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, finds 39 percent of men with an educational certificate earn more than men with an associate’s degree, and 24 percent earn more than men with a bachelor’s degree.

For those in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering or mathematics), salaries are higher still. According to another survey conducted by the Center, 63 percent of STEM employees with associate’s degrees earn more than the average worker with a bachelor’s degree in the humanities or social sciences.

Of course, community colleges and technical degrees, like all schools and fields of study, vary in their return on investment. Prospective students and their parents would do well to check sites such as Salary.com to learn the average salaries of graduates in the various fields.

Without doubt, a certificate or two-year technical degree is not for everyone. But neither is a four-year degree. What most need is at least some postsecondary education or training. For this, community colleges can fill the bill nicely — and their graduates will be able to pay their bills nicely, too, which will make their mothers happy!

Druart is the Publications Manager at the Texas Public Policy Foundation

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