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Two years ago my colleague Jon Marcus wrote about surprising research showing that many community college grads were out-earning bachelor’s degree holders. It was particularly true for those with vocational two-year degrees, in fields such as air-traffic control, dental hygiene or prison management.

Critics complained it was unfair of researchers to look at outcomes in the first year right after graduation. After all, many liberal arts majors take a while to establish a career path. (And not all students go to college with the goal of gaining a marketable skill.) Some philosophy majors may eventually become high-paid CEOs. Similarly, community college grads with narrow technical skills could quickly become obsolete. Every day, machines eliminate another good factory job. Or a computer programming language goes out of fashion. Perhaps, over time, liberal arts B.A.’s win?

So Mark Schneider, one of the researchers behind these studies, went back to the data in four states, to examine not only immediate post-graduation employment outcomes, but also five and 10 years later.

He found that, over the long term, everyone is making more money. The B.A.’s do catch up; their annual salary increases are larger than those of community college grads. “But even 10 years later, there are many students with certificates and associate’s degrees in fields where they make more money than the B.A.’s,” said Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

“If you know how to fix things or fix people, you win,” said Schneider, “It will get you into the middle class.”

His latest statewide report, “Education Pays in Colorado,” published on April 29, 2015, echoes the findings he’s seeing in Texas, Tennessee and Florida. He’s in the process of crunching long-term numbers for Minnesota and Virginia. (Schneider’s College Measures’ studies, where he matches students’ degrees to wage data, documented by each state’s unemployment insurance system, are supported by the Lumina Foundation, which is also among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

To be clear, people with four-year degrees are making more, on average, than the typical community college graduate or certificate holder. In Colorado, the median income for a 2002 college graduate was roughly $55,000 in 2012, a decade after completing the degree. That’s almost $13,000 more than the median annual income for a community college graduate after the same 10 years.

But these averages mask big differences in salaries depending on what people studied. For example,  two-year associate’s degree holders in an applied science were making more than $54,000, on average*, 10 years later — almost the same amount as their B.A.-holding counterparts. Those who studied fire protection were earning almost $73,000. There were even unexpectedly large salaries for people whose highest degree was a short-term certificate that took less than a year to complete, if the certificate was in a hot field. A short-term certificate in healthcare diagnostics, such as learning to become a mammography technician, yielded an annual salary of more than $54,000, on average, 10 years out.

By contrast, people with sub-baccalaureate degrees and certifications in cosmetology or early childhood education were making under $35,000. And the average salary for someone with a B.A. in history, English or psychology was still below $50,000 after 10 years.

Schneider saw some of the highest sub-baccalaureate salaries in Texas, where someone with a mechanical engineering certificate was earning more than $116,000, on average, after 10 years. That could be a job fixing high-tech machine tools on the factory floor or repairing petroleum equipment.

“It’s not the degree that matters, but what you got the degree in and, to some extent, where you got it,” concludes Schneider. On his website, you can see the actual salary data for each specialty and for each college.

The goal of these studies is for this information to trickle down to high school students, not to discourage the pursuit of liberal arts B.A.’s, but to let them know that there are many paths to a middle class life. An expensive four-year bachelor’s degree isn’t the only option. Schneider’s dream would be for more community college students to enroll in vocational programs for which there is high employer demand, rather than racking up student debts in a general studies program, hoping to to transfer to a four-year college some day.

But Schneider concedes that most of the highest-paying vocational credentials are rigorous programs, which require hard work and self-discipline. Many require advanced math skills that many high-school graduates don’t have. You can’t simply switch students, who aren’t academically prepared enough for a four-year degree, into them.

* All the “average” salary figures are medians, a way of describing an average salary that isn’t as skewed by extremely high salaries at the top. If you were to line up all the A.A.S. graduates in order by their salaries, the middle person would be making roughly $54,000.

This article also appeared here

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