Associate degrees

Some Associate Degrees Have Big Benefits

RALEIGH – Let’s say you’re about to graduate from a high school in North Carolina. Your grades are good but not great, and your main goal after graduation is to get the education you need for a fulfilling career with good earning potential.

Should you go to college or enroll in your local community college? For many people, the latter is the better bet. Trust me, I have receipts!

To be more specific, Preston Cooper has the receipts and I went through them. A senior fellow at the Equal Opportunity Research Foundation, Cooper produced a study last year that calculated the return on investment for some 30,000 bachelor’s degrees conferred by public and private universities across the country. I wrote about his findings at the time, pointing out the wide disparity in earnings from a Duke University economics degree (an average $2.7 million increase in lifetime earnings, after subtracting the cost of graduation) and a chemistry degree from the same institution (a net loss of $50,000 in lifetime earnings).

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What I meant was not that students shouldn’t major in chemistry or a relatively low-paying field like dance or acting, if that’s really their passion. But if the allure of post-secondary education is primarily financial gain, lower-cost options may make more sense.

This year, Cooper focused on cost and revenue data for 14,000 graduate degrees and 17,000 associate degrees and certificates. As before, its cost estimates not only include tuition, fees, and charges, but also the full-time salary that must be waived for the period required to complete each program.

On average, of course, those with graduate degrees earn more than those who progress no further than an undergraduate degree. In turn, they have higher average earnings than those who progress no further than community college. But averages don’t necessarily speak to what each student should be doing.

Consider, for example, the associate degree conferred by Wake Technical Community College in the field of industrial production technology. Assuming on-time completion, it has a return on investment of approximately $884,991—more than many four-year degrees conferred by nearby North Carolina State University. How about Wake Tech’s diploma in heating, air conditioning, ventilation and refrigeration? His on-time payback is $601,217, with average salaries around $44,000 at age 25 and reaching $67,000 at age 35.

Of course, an NC State degree in a technical or engineering field has a bigger payoff. But what if carrying out such a program is beyond your capabilities? You might be better off taking the two-year HVAC program instead of earning a bachelor’s degree in a less rigorous subject or (as all too often happens) never completing your degree.

Let’s head west for another comparison. The return on investment for a biology degree from UNC-Asheville is $315,269. In Asheville-Buncombe Tech’s Allied Health program, an associate’s degree in diagnosis, intervention, or treatment has a return on investment of $668,817.

Another example is computer technology. If you earn a computer science degree from UNC-Charlotte, you can expect an average return on investment of around $710,709. It’s wonderful (as a parent of a recent recipient of this degree). You can expect to earn around $61,012 at age 25 and $93,896 a decade later.

However, if a four-year program seems daunting to you, you can attend Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College. The return on investment for his associate’s degree in computer and information science is an impressive $500,295. You won’t earn as much – maybe $61,001 at 35 – but you’ll have started your career years earlier and spent far less on training.

These figures all assume on-time completion. Students are also dropping out of community colleges. Even after adjusting for the risk of non-completion, however, two-year programs frequently outweigh four-year programs. They cost much less.

Of course, education is not limited to learning a trade. In today’s world, however, there are other ways to get an education than spending four years (or more) on a college campus.

John Hood is a board member of the John Locke Foundation.