CNN Notices the Value of An Associate’s Degree

A recent piece from CNNMoney has noted the deflating value of a bachelor’s degree. Although community college degrees are frequently perceived as less “prestigious” than a four-year B.A., it turns out that nearly 30% of Americans with Associate’s degrees now make more than those with Bachelor’s degrees, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. And some data is suggesting that community college grads are outearning bachelor’s degree holders altogether in certain states. Notes CNN: “The average wage for graduates of community colleges in Tennessee, for instance, is $38,948 — more than $1,300 higher than the average salaries for graduates of the state’s four-year institutions.”

The data cuts against many Americans’ assumption that the value of a bachelor’s degree is superior to an associate’s degree. The truth is that, in the aggregate, the value of a B.A. is shrinking because a greater percentage of bachelor degree holders are majoring in subjects for which there is little demand. The economist Alex Tabarrok, for instance, has found that in the field of mathematics and statistics there were only 15,496 graduates in 2009, slightly more than the 15,009 graduates of 1985. This despite the fact that college enrollment has increased nearly 50% since that time. The economy rewards middle and high-paying STEM degrees more bountifully than it does those in the liberal arts and social sciences.

Conversely, notes Georgetown’s report, students who obtain Associate’s degrees are generally studying subjects for which there is actual employer demand: In 2009, “Roughly half of the Associate’s degrees were in career-oriented fields such as nursing, business, building trades, and information technology (IT).” The CNN piece featured a 24-year old making $50,000 per year as an IT tech at a TV station. He described the benefits to an Associate’s Degree well: “You come out with skills that people want immediately and not just theory.”

The best part of an Associate’s degree is that it can be a valuable springboard to a full-fledged B.A. Bachelor’s degree holders generally have a higher earnings ceiling than people with an Associate’s degree, but usually wind up paying far, far more for their education. In a fairly common situation, an Associate’s holder will have paid little for the first two years of postsecondary schooling, and then, as is often the case, may find their employer paying them to complete a B.A. It is something the 17-year old who wants to study anthropology should keep in mind. 


  • David Wilezol

    David Wilezol is the co-author of "Is College Worth It?" with former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

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