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WASHINGTON, DC – New research unveiled here has exposed an exception to the higher-education mantra that people with degrees earn more than people without them.

The research, conducted under the aegis of the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment and focused on community colleges, confirms the widely accepted belief that many graduates make more than people without degrees.

But it also found that the large proportion of community-college students who major in the liberal arts, humanities, and general studies and have not gone on to earn bachelor’s degrees receive little or no financial advantage at all in exchange for their time and tuition. Nor do recipients of many newly trendy professional certificates.

RELATED: The ‘cash cow’ of U.S. universities: Professional certificates instead of degrees

Researchers speculated that students at community colleges may end up in the liberal arts because there’s not enough room in nursing or technical programs, or because they’re not aware of the earnings implications.

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There are limitations to the data. For example, it doesn’t track whether those humanities majors ultimately transfer to four-year universities and colleges and boost their income by earning bachelor’s degrees. And because of differences in the way higher education and earnings information is tracked, there are variations in the way the research was conducted in various states.

In Florida, however, where researchers followed students from the eighth grade through the end of their educations, 55 percent of those who went to community colleges ended up in liberal-arts or general-studies programs, which also have among the lowest graduation rates and lowest earnings.

The results are likely to turbo-charge the ongoing debate about whether the purpose of a higher education is to impart knowledge or vocational skills.

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In Michigan, 40 percent of students at community colleges took liberal arts courses, and their degrees gave them no income advantage at all over classmates who enrolled but never graduated.

Florida students who received bachelor’s degrees made 61 percent more than their peers who never went to college, while those with associate’s degrees made 34 percent more, the research found.

Michigan men who graduated from community colleges made 12 percent more and women 32 percent more than those who enrolled but never finished. Neither men nor women saw any bump in earnings from short certificate programs, and men also saw zero premium from long certificate programs, though women benefited from long certificate programs with an additional 13 percent in their paychecks.

In North Carolina, women with community-college degrees earned 61 percent more than women without them, and men 25 percent more. But the premium for women with degrees in the liberal arts was only a fifth as much as for women with associate’s degrees in the sciences, and for men it was zero.

Researchers speculated that the difference between what men and women earned stemmed from the fact that women were more likely to go into nursing and other health fields, which pay more than other careers.

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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  1. You do realize that counting AA transfer students’ earnings as flawed don’t you? They have transferred to four year colleges and are still students. Going to a community college for the first two years is the best solution for the students and the ongoing cost of earning a higher education degree.
    Also, many students come to the community college to earn a few college credits to transfer to the four year schools. Counting them as non-graduates is misleading.
    You need to step back and look at where these liberal arts students are doing after leaving the community college to see a true picture.

  2. The criticism of the limitations of the data is completely valid. That’s why we pointed it out so prominently in the significant caveat in our story about this research — that the earnings outcomes for students who graduate from humanities, liberal arts, and general studies programs at community colleges did not track whether these students went on to receive bachelor’s degrees and therefore may have ultimately seen a bump in income.

    We also noted in the story that the findings were likely to prompt precisely this kind of debate.

    While the conclusions of the research were based on different methodologies and different sources of information in different states, and in some cases compared different populations of students, there was an important consensus, which is that large proportions of students at community colleges for some reason end up in liberal arts, humanities, and general studies programs whose earnings potential is less than other programs. That seems to us a finding that deserved reporting.

  3. Wow, so this plays into the short-term thinking that work is work and that more earnings is always better. News flash! Work is not equal. After I earned an AA Lib Art degree I was able to move from working with a shovel in my hand to an office. I received the same pay, but for my friends that didn’t make the move to desk work because they lacked skills and eventual degrees, they became disabled within the decade. My new job had more responsibility and was more demanding intellectually and emotionally, but physical labor was unsustainable. Continuing on with education allowed me to further myself and have a good but hard working life. The day of earning a degree and stepping into an easy, privileged job was the 60s. Maybe. Those of us who came of age in the 80s know and have been living with this for a long time.

    Please understand when someone gets a degree, no one wants to pay you any more, but the work one is qualified to do changes if you seek to improve your station. Looking at the Carolina study and considering context, one can easily see this difference in work.

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