There was a fascinating article in today's Wall Street Journal entitled, "The Diploma's Vanishing Value," by Jeffrey Selingo. The article details the fact that many two-year, Associate Degree individuals are beginning their professional careers with salary levels higher than many four-year college graduates. For instance, in my home state of Tennessee, the article points out that "the average first-year salaries of graduates with a two-year degree are $1000 higher than those with a Bachelor's Degree."
The article goes on to say, "Technical degree holders from the state's community colleges often earn more their first year out than those who studied the same field (my emphasis) at a four-year college." As an example, the article cites data for graduates in health professions from Dyersburg State Community College. Turns out, "They not only finish two years earlier than their counterparts at the University of Tennessee, but they also earn $5,300 more, on average, in their first year after graduating."
The phenomenon is not, of course, limited to my home state. Mr. Selingo also relates that in Virgina, graduates with two-year technical degrees from community colleges make $20,000 more in the first year after college than do many Bachelor's Degree graduates from the state's four-year colleges. (Those of you who wish to know more about this phenomenon can go to http://collegemeasures.org/esm/ for access to a cache of raw data.)
I grew up in a world where "higher education" was the key to a better life at a time when there were no two-year community or technical colleges. I worked my way through seven years of college (with the help of a scholarship or two, a 30 hour a week job when I was a freshman, a wonderful Cooperative Engineering (Co-op) program, and a graduate research grant. As the cost of "higher education" has skyrocketed in recent years, it has become more and more difficult for a young person to replicate my college experience.
I know of a situation in which a young person recently graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in economics from one our nation's premier universities. Despite working for "spending money" through all four years of undergraduate study, this young person graduated with over $100,000 in educational loan debt. Think about that! What can you do with a Bachelor's Degree in economics that will realistically allow you to pay-off $100,000 in loan debt before you are 40 years old? I maintain that the educational system failed that young person.
This is the little "dirty secret" of higher education: Society does not reward many, many "professions" and fields of study. It's absolutely wonderful (from the standpoint of personal satisfaction) if one wishes to pursue an undergraduate degree in some field of little commercial value – but we have an obligation to our youth to help them make informed decisions about such things. And we aren't doing it.
Some hard truths:
- A four-year college isn't right for everyone
- A 4-year Bachelor's Degree in many fields does NOT guarantee a financially-secure future
- Speaking strictly in economic terms, many college degrees aren't worth their cost
- Our nation desperately needs health technicians, physical therapists, radiological protection technicians, instrument technicians, auto mechanics, plumbers, etc., etc., etc., – and one can make a good living in these careers.
Knowledge discovery and innovation often occurs within the hallowed halls of research institutions, national laboratories, and academia. But SOCIETAL IMPACT only occurs when this knowledge and innovation is converted to hardware installed in the field. I'm speaking of power plants, electrical distribution networks, hospitals, telecommunications networks, and so forth. This impact cannot occur without an army of skilled and passionate professionals – many of whom will be trained in our two-year technical colleges and community colleagues. And many of whom will go on in life to be entrepreneurs who start their own businesses. When it comes to education, we need it all... Ph.D, Master's Degrees (the degree I still consider to be the ideal "do it all" degree), Bachelor's Degrees, and Associate Degrees – to get the job done! And the common thread? STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.
So, "hats off" to our nation's two-year colleges and to those who are increasingly seeing them as a pathway to the future. These intrepid souls are proving that "grey collars" often lead to "greenbacks" (as in $$$$$).