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U.S. Education Needs to Move Past Its 'Fixation on the Bachelor's Degree,' Study Says

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College-degrees-value-AEI.PNGAmerican educators and policymakers must "move beyond our current fixation on the bachelor's degree," and embrace the promise of associate and certificate programs, a new paper argues, noting that many jobs with good pay don't require bachelor's degrees.

The conclusion of the study published Friday by the American Enterprise Institute is not new. Other papers, like those by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, and the Community College Research Center, which are cited in the new paper, have made similar arguments.

But the new paper, "Degrees of Opportunity," is yet another sign of the swinging policy pendulum. As we've reported, policymakers are increasingly hailing the benefits of programs that are shorter and less costly than those that award bachelor's degrees. The rallying cry has changed from the longstanding "college for all"—which has typically meant bachelor's degrees for all—to "college doesn't necessarily mean a bachelor's degree."

In their paper, the AEI's Mark Schneider and Rooney Columbus explore the labor market value of various degrees and credentials, and ask whether shorter, less-expensive routes than bachelor's degrees can pay off down the road.

They find that bachelor's degrees, overall, still carry significant earnings power. But in many fields, associate degrees and nondegree certificates and credentials provide solid routes into jobs with good pay. For that reason, they argue, young people—and those who advise them—shouldn't discount those pathways as promising options.

"If we move beyond our current fixation on the bachelor's degree and widen the aperture to include all the postsecondary pathways at our disposal, far more educational options emerge that can lead students to economic success," Schneider and Columbus write in the paper.

Schneider and Columbus studied labor market data from Florida, Texas and Tennessee to examine how much students in various fields, with various credentials and degrees, earned after five years, and what their long-term prospects looked like.

Their takeaways? Many sub-baccalaureate programs offer "valuable routes into the middle class," while others pay better with bachelor's degrees. It depends on the field.

Five years after earning an associate degree from public colleges in Florida, for instance, physician assistants earn an average of $112,000 annually, while students with bachelor's degrees in systems engineering are pulling in $83,000 on average.  

But the data also show why painting these patterns with too broad a brush can be misleading. On that same list of Florida graduates with higher-than-average earnings, 10 of the 16 are jobs in which students earned bachelor's degrees. But bachelor's degrees certainly don't guarantee good wages, either, as many former creative-writing majors can attest. The AEI paper lists many fields paying $21,000 on average five years after a four-year degree (athletic trainer, graphic designer).

There is a big wage premium for some bachelor's degrees, from some universities, however. The long-term return on investment—which takes into account future earnings and the time, and cost, of attending college—from a bachelor's degree in business at the University of Texas-Austin is $1.6 million. But a job that needs only an associate degree—fire protection—has a return-on-investment that's close: $1.4 million, the AEI study finds.

Those numbers support the idea that what you study is just as important as where you study, the co-authors argue.

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