Thinking of Steering Youths to a Two- or Four-Year College? Think Again

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The hierarchy of college degrees does not correspond with a graduated scale of wages. In other words, once youths finish their postsecondary studies and enter the world of work, having gotten a higher education doesn’t necessarily mean they will earn a higher salary.

But here’s the clincher: The real wild cards in America’s labor market aren’t even college degrees but rather one- and two-year credentials, particularly in the fields of health and engineering.

So says Graduated Success: Sustainable Economic Opportunity through One- and Two-Year Credentials, a new postsecondary education study from Demos, a New York-based public policy research and advocacy organization.

“Advocates, educators and students often make the assumption that more education is always better, that a bachelors or graduate degree is always superior in terms of providing additional economic opportunity,” the paper states. “This is not always the case. A more nuanced picture of the connection between credentials and economic opportunity is emerging. Policymakers and students alike should pay attention to these nuances because the pathways to opportunity may be more varied and more attainable than previously thought.”

To bolster the point, the Demos paper cites research by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University that shows eight years after high school, 43 percent of those who hold a certificate as their highest degree earn a median annual salary that is higher than the median salary of those who hold an associate degree.

“In fact, 27 percent [of certificate holders] earn more than someone whose highest degree is a bachelors,” the paper states. “In a similar vein, 31 percent of associate degree holders earn more than someone holding a bachelors degree.”

The value of this report to youth workers – particularly those who give college and career advice – is that it provides more insight into the range of postsecondary educational outcomes. And it’s one of the few papers on postsecondary education that explicitly states there is more to selecting a career than its starting salary. But the paper makes clear that if earning a family-sustaining wage is your objective, one- and two-year programs can no longer be overlooked.

“There is now more evidence than ever before that one- and two-year credentials, particularly in specific fields, can lead to economic prosperity,” the Demos report states. “This evidence underscores the importance of degree completion as much as the type of degree selected.

“It also emphasizes the importance of addressing barriers that impede students in completing one- and two-year credentials,” the paper states, citing lack of money and lack of academic preparedness as two of the biggest obstacles in this regard.

The Demos report stands in stark contrast to a recent report from the Association of American Colleges & Universities called The Quality Imperative: Match Ambitious Goals for College Attainment with an Ambitious Vision for Learning.

In that report, the AAC&U espouses the virtues and benefits of a liberal arts education and attacks specific training as “narrow.” But if you read between the lines, you’ll see that the AAC&U is clearly concerned about government funding for its member institutions.

“With massive funding expected to flow into both school and postsecondary reform, we need to recognize from the outset that narrow training – the kind currently offered in far too many degree and certificate programs – will actually limit human talent and opportunity for better jobs in today’s knowledge economy,” the AAC&U report states.

So who do you believe?

Like so many topics and issues in the world of postsecondary education, it depends on who you ask.

If you ask George Leef, research director for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, don’t place your bets on the liberal arts education argument.

“The idea that all new jobs will demand academic preparation you can only get in college is baloney,” Leef  said in an interview.

He also criticized the Obama Administration’s goal of getting America to be the world leader in the percentage of college degree holders. In fairness, the White House says that the president believes that “regardless of educational path after high school, all Americans should be prepared to enroll in at least one year of higher education or job training to better prepare our workforce for a 21st century economy,” which clearly makes room for the one- and two-year programs.

“This is the kind of thing that should be left up to individual choices,” Leef said of whether Americans pursue higher education. “If it really makes sense for more people to pursue formal education of some sort, they will.

“For some that might be a BA or BS degree. For others, it might be just a course or two to improve their basic abilities,” he said.

It’s the same point made by the Demos paper.

The paper notes a large portion of the difference in earnings between certificate and associate degree holders is related to the type of credential held. In other words, not all certificates and degrees are the same in terms of labor market value.

For instance, engineering certificate holders earn an average annual salary of nearly $47,000, a figure higher than the average annual salary of associate degree holders in the areas of liberal arts, the social and natural sciences and education.

Citing troubling college completion rates, the paper also states that finishing a one- or two-year program is better than starting a two- or four-year program and not completing it.

The paper does not espouse sending youths in pursuit of one- or two-year degrees by default.

“Just as a four-year degree is not for everyone, neither is a one- or two-year credential or an engineering or health care degree,” the paper states.

“These findings also do not imply that policymakers should focus all of their attention and efforts on community colleges and trade schools,” the paper states. “What these findings do reveal however, is that policymakers and students alike have additional avenues to encourage economic opportunity. An important question is what factors are most important to encouraging success.”