In College, Sometimes Two Years Is Worth More Than Four

Want a solid, middle-class salary straight out of college? Skip the last two years.

A site that analyzes state-level data of how much people earn a year after graduating college found some counterintuitive results: Certain students who earn associate's degrees can get higher salaries than graduates of four-year programs -- sometimes thousands of dollars more. 

"These numbers and the consistency of these numbers are surprising to me," said Mark Schneider, president of and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. CollegeMeasures aggregates anonymized education and earnings data to figure out who earns what after graduation. 

Some of its results run counter to commonly-held assumptions. Community college degrees, long considered also-ran prizes in the race for academic achievement, "are worth a lot more than I expected and that I think other people expected," Schneider said.

But there is a catch: You have to earn your degree in a technical or occupational program to earn anywhere near $40,000. That's the approximate average earned by students who went to school and worked in the state of Virginia and graduated with two-year degrees in these fields between 2006 and 2010. Graduates of two-year nursing programs earned am average of $45,342.

Once they entered the work force, holders of what CollegeMeasures characterizes as "occupational/technical" associate's degrees made about $6,000 a year more than people who earned associate's degrees in non-occupational programs. Given the high demand for nurses, computer specialists, mechanical technicians and the like, that's not unexpected. In a study published earlier this year by the Census Bureau, college graduates with science and engineering degrees were about 10 percentage points more likely to be employed full-time than the average of all graduates.

The surprising finding is a comparison of those earnings to what bachelor's degree graduates made, on average: $36,067.

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Martha C. White
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