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Focus Associate Degree Programs on Job Growth

I’ve written ad nauseam about the limited income differential between community college graduates and high school graduates. When you factor in living wage calculations and other economic pressures (like student loan and credit card debts) it’s easy to see why an associate degree isn’t that interesting.

I’ve also written about the need to invest in new associate degree programs at the community college level. One area in which the need for workers is significant is clean energy. A recent release by the Bureau of Labor Statistics names the 14 highest-growth occupations between now and 2031. It comes as no surprise (to me, at least) that two of the 14 jobs on the list are in the clean energy field. They include solar panel installers (#13) and wind turbine technicians (#2).

Community colleges have fallen far behind in developing and producing associate degree programs that lead to high-paying jobs. One way to remedy this quickly is to focus on high-growth jobs. By introducing more high-demand, high-wage programs into the catalog, community colleges can begin to move the needle on wage growth among their graduates.

I was reading a technical paper today on educational attainment during the pandemic. While I was not surprised, I was disappointed to find that the researcher had lumped associate degree holders in with high school graduates and high school dropouts in terms of educational attainment. In a footnote, the author explained that he lumped associate degree earners into the “some college” category.

I’m not sure whether that’s just academic bias, or there’s another reason the associate degree doesn’t register as a legitimate post-secondary credential. But the persistently low wages that associate degree holders earn don’t help.

Associate degree programs must produce tangible results

Community colleges need to set wage targets for their graduates and start designing programs that will make that happen. I have written about the need for something similar to CAFE standards for community college programs. Changing the future of a two-year college depends heavily on increasing the wage-earning capability of its graduates. Unless community colleges start removing programs based on their low earning potential, two-year schools will quietly pass into oblivion.

Granted, not every student who graduates from a community college intends to enter the workforce immediately. Some students intend to transfer to a four-year school. But the success of the transfer pathway is similarly limited. Very few students who start studying at a two-year school with the intention of transferring to a four-year university actually graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

Neither of these outcomes – a low-wage job or failing to graduate with a four-year degree – are acceptable. But both outcomes represent a failure of leadership at the community college. We have an administration that is jammed to the rafters with high dollar executives, yet the outcomes for students are virtually indistinguishable from those of high school graduates. If the best a community college can do is equal the results of the local public high schools, why do we continue to fund the community college? Why not just plow more money into the local public school systems?

Photo Credit: Mark Rutter, via Flickr