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Community College

Money is a factor in my brother considering a two-year community college. What is the value of a two-year degree?

Over one third of all high schoolers furthering their education choose a community college, so your brother’s decision is echoed in millions of homes. While many believe that a two-year degree holds less earning potential than a four-year degree, studies show that associate degrees sometimes offer higher potential earnings than the four-year route, and at a fraction of the investment. It's important to check into your desired career and compare pay scales.

Associate’s degrees have traditionally been seen as inferior to their bigger brother, the bachelor’s. But with more states tracking the income of graduates, it's been revealed that some two-year degrees yield higher earnings potentials than their four-year equivalents.

Armed with this information, parents and students should be able to make more informed decisions about college, which may prevent unnecessarily adding more to the nation’s burgeoning $1.4 trillion student loan debt. A community college education can cost around $6,500 (minus financial aid) per year on average, including tuition, board, and expenses. A four-year college course will cost around double this per year and may not be completed in four years.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has published charts that show earnings and unemployment figures by educational attainment. According to their figures, the median earnings per year for bachelor graduates was around $60K compared to only $42.5K for those with associate’s degrees. However, the chart fails to compare the full range of salaries from those with two-year degrees in vocational and technical fields. These figures vary from state-to-state and by fields, some well-paying jobs require less than two-years study so it is often more important what you study than how long you study.

Alternative research indicates that one in four people with associate’s degrees earn more than the average of those with a bachelor’s. According to the BLS the top 30 fastest-growing job categories require an associate’s degree. Positions include dental hygienist, diagnostic medical sonographer, nuclear technician, electrical and electronics drafters, and physical therapist assistant.

Web developers are one of the hottest growing fields, predicted to growth over 27% in the next 8 years. There is no requirement for 4-year degrees in this industry, with a hiring preference for generalists, liberal arts, and creativity. One developer for coupon sites explains, "Few of my web colleagues know or would care that I never finished college." 

For many graduates, such as those with humanities majors, who may not pursue high-paying careers right out of college, the economic advantages of a four-year degree may not be evident for many years. Studies have shown that those taking more than four years to graduate could be as much as $85K worse off in the long run, say experts in business financing. A strict cost-benefit analysis does not always favor the investment in a 4-year degree.

One of the most compelling reasons to take a degree in half the time is financial. You'll be paying over six times more to get a four-year degree under similar circumstances. This path also means more time on campus and often a longer time to enter the workplace after graduation. Community college and two-year students can wrap their studies up and start earning much quicker. You'll become established in your field quicker, and have less of a student debt to pay off, this leads to an overall better financial situation all round.

Vocational careers are also more recession proof, as there will always be a demand for nurses, electricians, plumbers, and a wide range of occupations that can generate a good income with only two years of study.

It seems everyone knows a college degree is important, but few have a plan to keep it affordable - LZ Granderson.

(John Regan is a former Director of Sales for equity research).

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