NBC: Get Ahead by Skipping Last Two Years of College

Is higher education a good value? Is the education "worth it" for students destined for debt and uncertain job prospects?

I often write about the value of a liberal arts foundation — but that doesn't mean that I believe the most promising career prospects are in the humanities. Students asking me will be told they should focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), while they also have to be selecting within the STEM fields. Not every science has great job prospects, but I can predict that English and art majors are going to face much bleaker prospects.

My position isn't a contradiction; it is nuanced. If you are going to pursue a four-year degree it should have a solid foundation of liberal arts knowledge. This is because it is unlikely that graduates will remain in a single field throughout their professional lives. The humanities encourage creativity and critical analysis.

But, the traditional university education isn't for everyone. Though I would argue that capable students should have the ideal education — even if they don't appreciate its value until later in life — I also realize that vocational alternatives are important.

I've told students, much to their surprise, that if they are only interested in getting job, maybe they should consider community colleges or certification programs. If you want to fix computers and are going to actively resist art, history, and English courses, then you might as well pursue a technical certification instead of a degree. You can always complete a degree later in life, though being a returning student isn't easy.

New research supports my advice to those students with purely vocational aims.
Get Ahead by Skipping Last Two Years of College?
NBC News | December 30, 2012 | 11:53 AM EST

Want a solid, middle-class salary straight out of college? Skip the last two years.

A site that analyzes state-level data of how much people earn a year after graduating college found some counterintuitive results: Certain students who earn associate's degrees can get higher salaries than graduates of four-year programs — sometimes thousands of dollars more.

"These numbers and the consistency of these numbers are surprising to me," said Mark Schneider, president of CollegeMeasures.org and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. CollegeMeasures aggregates anonymized education and earnings data to figure out who earns what after graduation.

Some of its results run counter to commonly-held assumptions. Community college degrees, long considered also-ran prizes in the race for academic achievement, "are worth a lot more than I expected and that I think other people expected," Schneider said.

But there is a catch: You have to earn your degree in a technical or occupational program to earn anywhere near $40,000. That's the approximate average earned by students who went to school and worked in the state of Virginia and graduated with two-year degrees in these fields between 2006 and 2010. Graduates of two-year nursing programs earned an average of $45,342.
Associate's degrees and technical certifications are, generally, much cheaper than a four-year degree. In California, you can complete an associate's degree at some public colleges for $2500 to $3000, as tuition averages $600 per semester. Even in states with higher tuition rates, community colleges cost a fraction of university tuition — and the quality of courses is often excellent. If a student decides to transfer to a university, the associate's degree remains a great bargain thanks to transferable units.

For 2011, the estimated total cost of an associate's degree at the College of Sequoias in Visalia, California, was $4,796. If you complete a basic vocational nursing program or computer certification program, the investment is returned within the first year of full-time employment. You can't make that claim about most bachelor's degrees.
The surprising finding is a comparison of those earnings to what bachelor's degree graduates made, on average: $36,067. 
People with liberal arts and humanities majors didn't even fare that well: on average, grads with political science majors earned $31,184, history majors earned $30,230 and English majors only earned $29,222 a year.

Schneider said this pattern of workers with two-year technical degrees out earning many four-year grads has been consistent across the states it has studied so far.

A generation ago, things were different. Before the recession of 1980-1981, a bachelor's degree of any kind was a ticket to a career that offered middle-class earnings, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.

This isn't the case anymore, he said. "It's a system in which you can't just have an ambition to go to college and get a degree. You have to pay attention to the courses and the content of your degree."

"The degree level matters, but a lot less than it used to," he said. "What matters is what you take. Thinking about it as a hierarchy of degrees isn't the way to think about it anymore."
Education has always been "vocational" to some extent, but the value metrics are changing. We need to be honest with students about the financial costs of and returns on a university education. For many, a two-year degree or certificate might be the best choice after high school.

As someone with degrees in English, journalism, and rhetoric, I'm not about to claim we don't need experts in the humanities — but we don't need many professors and researchers in those fields. Having a double-major or pursuing a graduate degree in a STEM field is a great way to expand career options. Technical skills represent job insurance. It would be great to have English and art degree programs filled with students also studying engineering, biology, and businesses.

Myself, I am considering updating technical certifications and maybe some additional credentials. That's not because my English degrees have no "value" — but their value isn't monetary in this job market.


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