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Remodeling the Associate Degree

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released updated employment figures. In the report, the BLS indicated that there are currently 11.3M open positions in the US labor market. In the BLS’s view, a job is a job, but many open positions may be nothing more than minimum wage assignments. Job seekers with only an associate degree aren’t faring well.

There are just about 100 BLS-tracked occupations that require some level of education below a bachelor’s degree but beyond a high school diploma. And the pandemic hasn’t been easy on workers (aged 25+) armed with only a two-year degree. Employment among these workers fell more than 14% between March 2020 and April 2020. Unfortunately, it hasn’t completely recovered. As of February 2022, employment levels among associate degree holders over the age of 25 is still 4.25% below its March 2020 peak.

The employment consequences fall more heavily on women than on men. BLS data show that among employed adults over the age of 25 where an associate degree is the highest level of educational attainment, 52% of employees are women. Employment among women with associate degrees dropped nearly 16% between March 2020 and April 2020. Employment among this group was nearly 5.25% below its March 2020 peak. In other words, women left the labor force at a faster pace than their male counterparts and have been slower to return. Overall, employment is less than seven-tenths lower today than it was in February 2020.

Adding value to an associate degree benefits everyone

The data point to a problem for community colleges. Employers value associate degrees less than other post-secondary credentials. For years, community colleges have specialized in developing degree programs for occupations that pay sub-par wages. That may lead to a job, but the more direct path to the middle class is a bachelor’s degree.

That leaves the associate degree in the uncomfortable position of competing with the high school diploma and losing. It doesn’t have to be this way, however.

The crude reality of employment is that the starting wage for the “middle class” is $25.50 per hour. That doesn’t include benefits or bonuses. $25.50 should be the target wage for occupational associate degree programs. Right now, the highest paying associate degree programs are in healthcare. Radiation technologists, dental hygienists and nuclear medicine all produce much higher than average incomes for associate degree holders.

Outside of healthcare and other STEM fields, and the trades, the pickings get pretty slim. It is time to start measuring all occupational degree programs by the income they generate for graduates. Programs that cannot produce a starting wage that’s at least 85% of the minimum bar for a middle class income need to be flagged. If a certificate, occupational license, or additional coursework cannot increase the starting wage of graduates, the College needs to teach out the program and create a program with a better market potential. The starting wage for a graduate is an indication of the market value of a degree program. When the market speaks, it pays to listen.

Photo Credit: Leonid Domnitser , via Flickr