Press "Enter" to skip to content

Four-year degrees are the minimum earning standard

Nationally, there’s been long-running discussion about offering four-year degrees at community colleges. In Michigan, the Legislature has authorized community colleges to deliver a limited number of four-year degrees, typically in applied sciences.

Four-year programs at community colleges are usually workforce-oriented to avoid direct competition with universities. Not surprisingly, graduates of these four year programs tend to earn more following graduation, in both the near-term and the long-term. The same is not always true for two-year degrees. Often, a two-year degree will provide an earnings boost for some period of time following graduation, but long term, a two-year degree doesn’t always sustain an earnings boost.

This makes sense, since most community college degrees are skill based. Skills erode over time, and technology often replaces skills or changes the application of those skills. In other words, community college degrees often have a expiration date.

During the pandemic, Washington State’s community and technical colleges suffered significant enrollment declines, just like community colleges in every other state. In Washington, enrollment at two-year schools dropped by nearly one-quarter between 2019 and 2021. At the same time, enrollment in the state’s applied sciences four-year programs (delivered by its community colleges) increased by 16%.

Offering four-year degrees turned out to be a highly sustainable strategy for Washington’s community and technical colleges. Currently, more than 5,000 students statewide study in an applied sciences program. The push to offer four-year degrees at two-year schools resulted from a growing body of data that showed that two-year degrees did not reliably provide enough income following graduation to sustain most small households.

Living wage jobs require four-year degrees

That statement doesn’t quite capture the severity of the two-year degree problem. One study showed that nearly 75% of living-wage occupations in Washington State required four-year degrees to sustain a single adult. For families, 94% of living wage jobs that produced enough income to sustain a family required a four-year degree.

That study was conducted and published in 2001.

Twenty-one years ago, the two-year degree model had a target on its back. More than two decades ago, researchers identified the problem: community college degrees do not generate enough income to generate living wages for adults – with or without families.

Armed with this knowledge, community colleges have done little to enhance their degree programs to enable graduates to earn a living wage. They’ve been coasting. Unfortunately, those most impacted are the students. They enter a program and spend scarce resources to earn a two-year degree that will not – for the most part – produce a living wage. Community colleges have done nothing to correct this wage misconception, nor have they taken the time to correct and enhance the value of their degree programs.

So don’t feel sorry for community college administrators when they cry about their declining enrollment. They are now experiencing the consequences of more than two decades of their own fully informed inaction.