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Why you shouldn't bother with that bachelor's degree

A new study suggests that those with a technical 2-year degree can earn more in their first year than new grads with a bachelor's degree.

By MSN Money Partner Sep 19, 2013 11:20AM

This post comes from Maryalene LaPonsie at partner site Money Talks News.

MTN logoWe all know the routine: You graduate from high school, head off to the college or university of your choice, and graduate four years later with a boatload of student loan debt.

Technician working on a network server © Purestock, Purestock, Getty ImagesBut it all pays off in the end, right? That bachelor's degree is the only way to land a prime job, and employers won't give you a second glance without one. It's the line we've been feeding ourselves and our kids for at least as long as since I was in high school.

What if it's not true?

What if you could earn just as much, if not more, by going to school for less than half the time? That's the suggestion of a study published this month by the American Institutes for Research. It found that while bachelor's degrees have their place, graduates may find their first-year earnings would be more with a technical associate degree.

Some associate degrees have an $11,000 advantage

To be clear, the AIR study isn't a comprehensive review of data from all 50 states, but it does provide an intriguing case study based upon information from Arkansas, Colorado, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

According to the research, in all of those states except Arkansas, first-year earnings were higher for graduates with an associate degree than for those with a bachelor's degree. The difference was most striking in Texas, where those with a technical associate degree earned $11,000 more in their first year working compared with those leaving school with a four-year degree.

Overall, the AIR found the following differences in first-year earnings in the five states:

  • Arkansas -- $31,430 with an associate degree versus $32,784 with a bachelor's degree.
  • Colorado -- $45,889 with an associate of applied science degree versus $38,860 with a bachelor's degree.
  • Tennessee -- $38,954 with an associate degree versus $37,567 with a bachelor's degree.
  • Texas -- $50,827 with a technical associate degree versus $39,725 with a bachelor's degree.
  • Virginia -- $38,551 with a technical associate degree versus $36,472 with a bachelor's degree.
Study this, not that

In addition to looking at first-year earnings of graduates with two-year degrees compared with four-year degrees, the AIR considered the earning potential of specific certificate and associate degree programs.

If the study findings are to be trusted, students looking for a healthy paycheck may want to head to Texas, where the highest paying certificate and two-year degree programs were found. The Lone Star State boasts the following first-year incomes for these certificate and associate degree holders:

  • Nuclear/nuclear power technology/technician AT -- $98,226.
  • Fire services administration AT -- $90,317.
  • Fire prevention and safety technology/technician AT -- $87,823.
  • Communications systems installation and repair technology certificate -- $78,515.

On the other hand, if you enjoy eating ramen noodles, you may want to earn a bachelor's degree in music performance. In Texas, first-year income for graduates with that degree was a paltry $15,053. Other low-paying bachelor's degree programs include the four-year dietitian degree in Arkansas, which earns only $19,808 in the first year, or a bachelor's degree in photography, which will get you a mere $20,442 in Virginia.

Don't give up the dream of a four-year degree yet

While the AIR research certainly tarnishes the ideal of the bachelor's degree as the gold standard of higher education, don't totally dismiss the idea of a four-year degree just yet.

Certainly, government statistics support the idea that a bachelor's degree offers more income-earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bachelor degree holders earn a median of $1,066 per week while workers with associate degrees have median incomes of $785 per week.

Instead of taking the four-year degree off the postsecondary table, the takeaway for students and parents may be to forget the automatic assumption that a bachelor’s degree is the only way to go. Certainly, associate and certificate programs shouldn't be treated like second-rate citizens in the world of higher education.

Before you drop $34,620 for a bachelor's degree -- the average cost of four years of tuition and fees at a public university, based on 2012-2013 data from the College Board -- see where $6,262 and an associate degree will get you.

More on Money Talks News:

Sep 19, 2013 1:36PM
They are comparing apple and oranges. Sure on average a tradesman/technician will likely make more than an arts B.A. , but a 4 year engineering degree earns immediately much much more than a 2-year engineering technician.

Point being, not all bachelor degrees are created equal. 

Sep 19, 2013 2:06PM
After my experience, I would recommend to anyone to start with an associate's degree, followed by an immediate job in the field.  The next step is tough, but worth it.  Once you have the job in your field you start your bachelor's program.  Work full time while doing so, few classes at a time, and in a couple years you will have a BA with 3+ years of work experience.  Also, you will likely have less debt.  It's about as close to a win-win as you can get with educational costs
Sep 19, 2013 2:57PM

A bachelor's degree is good to have in some fields, but the trades have been sorely neglected.

Welders, machinists, plumbers, electricians,and technicians of all kinds can write their own ticket because there is such a shortage.

It seems people think they are too good to get their hands dirty.

Sep 19, 2013 1:47PM
IN California the board of regents are spending $600,000.00 to upgrade the presidents housing mansion.  And you wonder why tuition is so high.....
Sep 19, 2013 3:01PM
I got an Associate of Applied Science in Engineering Technology and it landed me a terrific, well-paying job with a huge international company that will pay my tuition to get my Bachelor's Degree!  What a deal!
Sep 19, 2013 3:39PM
Unfortunately there are too many young people out there with their 4 year liberal arts party degrees believing they are somehow deserving of high paying entry level jobs. They are not. I would hire a military Vet with an associate degree anyday over them.  
Sep 19, 2013 2:14PM
And just how many positions are available for that Nuclear/nuclear power technology/technicia​n AT salary?
Sep 19, 2013 2:10PM

there's no way you can make such a blanket statement.  too many factors involved, including luck, placement, geography, talent, work ethic, ...the list goes on. 

the third richest man in France didn't graduate high school, while Dr. Maurice Johnson, phd from Cleveland, is homeless. 

Sep 19, 2013 12:56PM
It all depends on what type of career you want. Many need a bachelor's degree and some need a graduates degree. Associate degrees are great for some tech jobs, but those statistics you showed are not the norm. Students need to do some research to find out what they need, but first they have to know what they want to do. In that regards, high school education fails.
Sep 19, 2013 1:52PM
The only people I have heard of that make decent money with a 2 year degree are some position in the medical field...nurses, sonographers and such, but with a 2 year degree, they do not seem to get promoted beyond what they were hired for at the start.  There are a lot of computer techies that never went to college, but either have certifications or are really good at what they do and can get jobs, but they have to be damn good at it and really know their stuff, unlike getting a few basic certifications and think you are going to get a high dollar job.  There are some darn good paying "blue collar" jobs, but, again, they know their stuff very well, certified electricians, plumbers.  
Sep 19, 2013 4:04PM
I earn as much as someone in my job with a degree.  I have worked in jobs that require degrees, though I don't  have one.  I have worked with people with degrees that knew a lot less that I did.  Sometimes school doesn't teach you as much as you need to know.  Sometimes learning on the job is the best of all. 
Sep 19, 2013 2:37PM
This article is a flat out lie. I have been in the IT world for over a decade and cannot get a full time job. Only contract work for a few months at a time. Very disgusting. Many great IT people I have worked with are in the same situation. Working for these IT contractors is just like working for the mafia. NO holiday pay, NO sick pay, NO vacation.
Sep 19, 2013 2:59PM
The nice thing about an Applied Science Associate's degree is that you can often get your foot in the door and many employers offer tuition reimbursement programs for continued education.

Get a job with an Associate's, finish your Bachelor's (largely) on your employer's dime.

I was a computer science major at Purdue and landed an internship between my sophomore junior year (fixing Y2K code).  They offered me a job at the end of my internship and I finished my Bachelor's and will soon finish my Master's (MBA) without incurring a dime in student debt.
Sep 19, 2013 2:07PM
There is no one solution for everyone. If you have great interest and potential in accounting, engineering, business, and other high in demand fields then go for the four year degree or more. But don't do it if you have marginal skills and interests in these areas just hoping to make money.

If your great with mechanical things, like to work outdoors and with your hands then maybe your better off learning a trade instead of a four year degree. Another advantage of trade type work is that when your off work you are off work. You can't repair a machine or wire a house or fix plumbing from you home PC or smart phone. Also much less debt learning a trade. But don't get into these things if you are not mechanically inclined and willing to get dirty.

So the right path is up to the individual. Just consider ALL option, formal 4 year degree or technical school.
Sep 19, 2013 3:29PM
Too bad that corporate America has shipped most of the skilled trade manufacturing jobs overseas because of cheap labor.  More and more cyber jobs are being transferred too.  There is just so much need for 4 yr. graduates in any field, and the playing fields are getting smaller and smaller.  It's no wonder that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider; and America's middle class is disappearing. 
Sep 19, 2013 4:08PM
Dang. You mean my masters in Women studies and anthropology ain't worth nothing. Hell, then I ain't going to pay my student loans.
Sep 19, 2013 2:27PM

In the short run, yes. But if you do not know how to deal with and manage people along with an understanding of business, after sometime you will stagnate.

A technical Bachelors lifts the ceiling down the road.

Of course if you wish to remain a all means you can make a nice living.


Either way......GO TO SCHOOL.

Sep 19, 2013 2:12PM

The article is  misleading.  What is does not say is that if you continue to a B.A. or

especially a B.S. in the same degree that you have your A.A. you have a substantial

larger chance of getting a job to begin with.  Many employers require a bachelors

begree as a minimum.  Others may hire you with an A.A. but require you finish your

degree within 2 or 4 years.  Your pay will be greater, plus the big surpise is, it's not

over, a graduate degree in the sciences is especially appealling.   The job market

sometime dictates that higher degrees are not worth it.  When I was hired in my

current profession they would not hire a person with an M.B,S, or if they did they

paid them the same.  That soon changed.

An advanced degree is always important and addittional degrees after that will only

increase your knowledge and ability to get better jobs.


The A.A. only is good enough was bunk in the 70's and it's even more bunk now.

Sep 19, 2013 2:13PM

Another point to consider, and I think most economists would agree, is that many if not mosT jobs that begin with a higher level of pay offer a lower rate of pay as time goes on, or less opportunity for advancement, than those that start at a lower pay level.  This is the case with many two year compared to four year opportunities.

Sep 19, 2013 2:57PM
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