Opinion: Some Associate Degrees Have Big Payoffs

By John Hood

RALEIGH — Suppose you are about to graduate from a North Carolina high school. Your grades are good but not great, and your primary goal after graduation is to get the schooling you need for a fulfilling career with good earnings potential.

Should you head off to university or enroll in your local community college? For many folks, the latter is the better bet. Trust me — I have receipts!

To be more precise, Preston Cooper has the receipts and I’ve perused them. A senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, 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, spotlighting the wide disparity of gains from say, an economics degree from Duke University (an average boost of $2.7 million in lifetime earnings, after subtracting the cost of getting the degree) and a chemistry degree from the same institution (a net loss of $50,000 in lifetime earnings).

My point wasn’t that students ought not to major in chemistry, or in a relatively low-paying field such as dance or drama, if it’s truly their passion. But if the allure of post-secondary education is mostly the financial payoff, less-expensive options may make more sense.

This year, Cooper turned his attention to cost-and-earnings data for 14,000 grad-school degrees and 17,000 associate degrees and certificates. As before, his cost estimates include not only tuition, fees, and charges but also the full-time wages one must forego for the period required to complete each program.

On average, of course, holders of graduate degrees earn more than those who progress no further than an undergraduate degree. They, in turn, have higher average earnings than those who progress no further than community college. But averages don’t necessarily speak to what individual students should do.

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 about $884,991 — higher than that of many four-year degrees conferred by nearby North Carolina State University. How about Wake Tech’s degree in heating, air conditioning, ventilation and refrigeration? Its on-time completion ROI is $601,217, with salaries averaging about $44,000 at age 25 and reaching $67,000 by age 35.

Sure, an N.C. State degree in a technical or engineering field has a larger payoff. But what if completing such a program is beyond your capabilities? You might well be better off doing the two-year HVAC program instead of getting a bachelor’s in a less-rigorous subject or (as happens all too often) never finishing your degree.

Let’s head out west for another comparison. The ROI for a biology degree from UNC-Asheville is $315,269. In Asheville-Buncombe Tech’s allied health program, an associate degree in diagnostic, intervention, or treatment has an ROI of $668,817.

Here’s another one example: computer technology. If you get a computer science degree from UNC-Charlotte, you can expect an average ROI of about $710,709. That’s wonderful (speaking as a parent of a recent recipient of this degree). You can expect to make about $61,012 by age 25 and $93,896 a decade later.

However, if a four-year program sounds daunting to you, you can attend Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College. The ROI of its associate degree in computer and information sciences is an impressive $500,295. You won’t make quite as much — perhaps $61,001 by age 35 — but you’ll have begun your career years earlier and spent a lot less to get trained.

These figures all assume completion on schedule. Students drop out of community colleges, too. Even after adjusting for the risk of non-completion, however, the two-year programs frequently come out ahead of the four-year programs. They cost a lot less.

To be sure, educating yourself is about more than learning a trade. In today’s world, however, there are other ways of educating yourself than spending four (or more) years on a university campus.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).

1 COMMENT

  1. Even if you are going for a four-year degree, you can save a TON of money by doing the first two years in a community college transfer program. Student loans are a tough burden.

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