College & Workforce Readiness

When Are One- or Two-Year Credentials Better Than Bachelor’s Degrees?

By Catherine Gewertz — May 16, 2018 2 min read
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The college landscape has gotten increasingly expensive and complex. So it’s more important than ever for students to understand how to decide what kinds of education or training they need after they graduate from high school.

A study released Wednesday argues that young people should no longer assume that they need a bachelor’s degree to have a stable job that pays well. But today’s rules are contradictory, too: Students shouldn’t assume they don’t need a four-year degree, either.

The trick is to understand which degrees are necessary for good earnings in your chosen field of study, says the report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

And that’s no easy task, since the list is quickly growing longer. In 1985, higher education institutions offered 410 programs of study, the report says. By 2010, that number had more than quintupled, to 2,260. In some of those fields, young people can earn more with a one-year certificate or an associate degree than they can with a bachelor’s. In others, the bachelor’s degree still carries a significant wage premium.

“Five Rules of the College and Career Game” argues that the college conversation needs to shift to reflect these new realities. Lead author Anthony Carnevale suggests that students and their families should put one thing front and center in their college planning: the payoff from specific college programs.

These are Carnevale’s five rules. He notes that living with them requires some tolerance of contradiction.

  • More education is usually better. In general, each level of educational attainment brings higher earnings. People who have graduate degrees have a median annual salary of $80,000. For those with bachelor’s degrees, it’s $62,000, and with associate degrees, $47,000. Contrast those with the median annual earnings of people with only high school diplomas: $36,000.
  • Majors matter more. Here’s where nuance starts to matter. People with four-year degrees in architecture and engineering command median annual earnings of $85,000. For those with BAs in education, it’s $46,000.
  • What you major in is important, but it might not trump everything. Here’s where nuance gets even more confounding. But it’s worth stopping to take in the earnings variations within the same major. The top 25 percent of those who majored in the liberal arts earn $81,000, while those in the bottom 25 percent of architecture and engineering majors earn $60,000.
  • Most humanities and liberal arts majors never catch up with the highest earning majors such as STEM, health care, and business. Are you frustrated yet? The Georgetown study finds that people who majored in fields such as business, physical sciences, or biology and life sciences can end up earning more, down the road, than those who majored in social sciences.
  • Less education can be worth more. In a world still obsessed with bachelor’s degrees, this is a toughie. But consider this: 28 percent of those with associate degrees earn more than the average person with a bachelor’s degree. Median earnings for people with associate degrees in STEM fields are $60,000, while it’s only $47,000 for those with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and social work.

These kinds of distinctions are increasingly important as students try to figure out their post-high-school plans. But few schools have staff members with a good grasp of these trends. (I wrote about a notable exception to this pattern, a small school in Kentucky that uses labor market data to shape its course offerings and advise students. Check it out.)

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.