Why You Shouldn’t Bother Earning That Bachelor’s Degree

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A new study suggests that those with a technical 2-year degree can earn more in their first year than new grads with a bachelor's degree.

This post comes from Maryalene LaPonsie.  

We all know the routine: You graduate from high school, head off to the college or university of your choice, and graduate four years later with a boatload of student loan debt.

But it all pays off in the end, right? That bachelor’s degree is the only way to land a prime job, and employers won’t give you a second glance without one. It’s the line we’ve been feeding ourselves and our kids for at least as long as since I was in high school.

What if it’s not true?

What if you could earn just as much, if not more, by going to school for less than half the time? That’s the suggestion of a study published this month by the American Institutes for Research. It found that while bachelor’s degrees have their place, graduates may find their first-year earnings would be more with a technical associate degree.

Some associate degrees have an $11,000 advantage

To be clear, the AIR study isn’t a comprehensive review of data from all 50 states, but it does provide an intriguing case study based upon information from Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

According to the research, in all of those states except Arkansas, first-year earnings were higher for graduates with an associate degree compared with those with a bachelor’s degree. The difference was most striking in Texas, where those with a technical associate degree earned $11,000 more in their first year working compared with those leaving school with a four-year degree.

Overall, the AIR found the following differences in first-year earnings in the five states:

  • Arkansas — $31,430 with an associate degree vs. $32,784 with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Colorado — $45,889 with an associate of applied science degree vs. $38,860 with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Tennessee — $38,954 with an associate degree vs. $37,567 with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Texas — $50,827 with a technical associate degree vs. $39,725 with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Virginia — $38,551 with a technical associate degree vs. $36,472 with a bachelor’s degree.

Study this, not that

In addition to looking at first-year earnings of graduates with two-year degrees compared with four-year degrees, the AIR considered the earning potential of specific certificate and associate degree programs.

If the study findings are to be trusted, students looking for a healthy paycheck may want to head to Texas, where the highest paying certificate and two-year degree programs were found. The Lone Star State boasts the following first-year incomes for these certificate and associate degree holders:

  • Nuclear/nuclear power technology/technician AT — $98,226.
  • Fire services administration AT — $90,317.
  • Fire prevention and safety technology/technician AT — $87,823.
  • Communications systems installation and repair technology certificate — $78,515.

On the other hand, if you enjoy eating ramen noodles, you may want to earn a bachelor’s degree in music performance. In Texas, first-year income for graduates with that degree was a paltry $15,053. Other low-paying bachelor degree programs include the four-year dietitian degree in Arkansas, which earns only $19,808 in the first year, or a bachelor’s degree in photography, which will get you a mere $20,442 in Virginia.

Don’t give up the dream of a four-year degree yet

While the AIR research certainly tarnishes the ideal of the bachelor’s degree as the gold standard of higher education, don’t totally dismiss the idea of a four-year degree just yet.

Certainly, government statistics support the idea that a bachelor’s degree offers more income-earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bachelor degree holders earn a median of $1,066 per week while workers with associate degrees have median incomes of $785 per week.

Instead of taking the four-year degree off the postsecondary table, the takeaway for students and parents may be to forget the automatic assumption that a bachelor’s degree is the only way to go. Certainly, associate and certificate programs shouldn’t be treated like second-rate citizens in the world of higher education.

Before you drop $34,620 for a bachelor’s degree — the average cost of four years of tuition and fees at a public university, based on 2012-2013 data from the College Board – see where $6,262 and an associate degree will get you.

Stacy Johnson

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