Students who chose a two-year associates degree over a more lengthy and expensive college commitment are being rewarded in some cases with higher paying jobs at graduation.
About one in three associates degree graduates make more than their peers with bachelor’s degrees, according to a 2013 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Morever, these students typically pay about half the price per year and spend two fewer years taking classes.
The data reinforce what community college advocates have been saying for years, that a student’s prosperity doesn’t always depend on attending a university.
A university will offer more experiences to the typical student and many more programs. But they are also dramatically more expensive and, depending on the specialty, may not provide the return on investment.
Local and national leaders point to community colleges as a cost-efficient way to boost college attainment and address the “skills gap.” Indeed, earlier this year President Barack Obama proposed making these schools “free” to open up more opportunities to lower-income individuals.
Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College, said his school provides both value and quality. “When students are done with their studies at Sinclair, they are skilled,” he said.
Earlier this month Sinclair released data showing that students who complete degrees at Sinclair see their earnings jump from a median of $17,000 to $37,000. That figure jumps to $50,000 if the graduate leaves with a health care-related degree.
“That’s why I come to work,” Johnson said. “That is a remarkable and life changing situation to go from making $17,000 a year to $37,000.”
On average, college graduates still out earn their community college counterparts in most areas. But higher education experts say the more specialized the degree program at a community college, the more likely it will pay more than, say, an arts-based degree at a four-year university.
According to data from the state, 2005 graduates of Sinclair’s mechanical engineering program, on average, earned $41,212 six years after graduation. Meanwhile, students who left Wright State University in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology earned, on average, $32,096 six years after graduation.
In 2012, Matt Grigsby moved from a maintenance gig at Dayton-based All-Service Plastic Modeling to a job as a project engineer (making several $1,000 more per year) — a move he credits to his associate of science degree in automation and control technology from Sinclair.
During the economic downturn, Grigsby lost his job with a local automotive company. The 39-year-old Medway resident said he saw Sinclair as an affordable option to grow his skills.
“The thing about Sinclair or a technical degree is that you get a lot of hands-on experience,” he said. “There is a huge gap in manufacturing,” and people coming in with a generalized four-year degree don’t have the same lab experience.
Grigsby said people need to overcome their fear of manufacturing careers.
“I think everybody is afraid that manufacturing is gone, with things moving to China and India,” he said. “There has been a huge movement to bring things back. Technology is growing, in robotics and automation, and those countries don’t have the [skilled] workers, and the work is coming back here.”
Many of the two-year programs that pay the most are in skilled fields that have a shortage of workers.
“If you know how to fix things or build things, you will be alright,” said Mark Schneider, president of College Measures, which helps states calculate graduate earnings with an aim toward improving outcomes. “Anything with the word technician, including quality technician and mechanical-related technology technician” likely pays well and is in demand.
Boston-based Burning Glass Technologies provided this newspaper with a national list of advanced manufacturing jobs that typically require a two-year degree and pay better than common entry-level jobs held by four-year degree holders. They include avionics technicians, $55,373; CNC machine programmer, $54,493; tool and die maker, $50,502; electro-mechanical technicians, $48,400; and electrical and electronics engineering technicians, $51,693.
Schneider also recommends looking toward health careers.
The most common high paying associates degree in the region is nursing. Nursing graduates from Clark State Community College earn, on average, about $55,000 per year. That number is $47,000 for Edison State Community College nursing graduates.
Community college isn’t for everyone.
Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, says students may miss out on the experience of living on campus and the lifelong friendships and connections that can produce.
However, Kelchen points out students at commuter campuses, like Wright State, sometimes miss out on some of those experiences. Yet those students pay a higher tuition than their community college peers.
Another possible downside is that students are less likely to make their way to a university, he said.
“Research shows if students want a bachelor’s degree, they are less likely to get a bachelor’s” if they start at a community college, Kelchen said.
In addition, some higher education experts say community college graduates are qualified for fewer jobs, and can be at a disadvantage if their skills become obsolete.
“The biggest advantage of a bachelor’s degree is that it qualifies them for more jobs,” Kelchen said. “Just having that bachelor’s degree can open up more doors.”