How to boost the earnings power of associate of arts degrees
An American Enterprise Institute study recommends a number of changes to boost the earnings power of the typical associate of arts degree offered at community colleges because graduates with these degrees earn less than those with associate degrees in more technical fields.
Generally, community college studies are oriented around general education course, suitable for transferring to four-year colleges. Of the the 670,000 awarded associate degrees in 2015, 40% were in a single field of study: liberal arts, general studies and humanities. Another 100,000 associate degrees were awarded in related transfer-oriented programs.
Because most community college enrollees never obtain bachelor’s degrees, many are in the job market with a general education degree that provides limited work skills and earnings power. With a few additional skills, the study’s authors argue, community college graduates would be more competitive for jobs earning at least $40,000. Looking at jobs data, the authors suggested enhancing the traditional associate of arts degree with more marketable skills like Photoshop, website design or project management.
Mark Schneider, co-author of AEI’s Saving the Associate of Arts Degree, spoke with Education Dive about the report’s findings and the challenges of upgrading curriculums at community colleges. He believes two-year colleges can enhance the earnings power of associate arts degrees, but that they need to start by recognizing that the rationale for the degree doesn’t add up with reality.
“The associate arts degree in liberal arts is designed as a transfer program. The thought had always been that they use the general education course study because at the end of two or three years, you would transfer to get a bachelor's degree,” said Schneider. “The problem is it is well known that most students in those programs are never going to get their bachelor's degree.”
Schneider is a visiting scholar at AEI and vice president at the American Institutes for Research. He previously served as the U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics from 2005-2008. Much of his work has centered around identifying educational pathways that produce the best returns on investment.
Upgrading the associate degree to signal mastery of an in-demand work skill is a helpful to students in the long term, he said. College administrators should squeeze marketable coursework into associate arts general degree requirements or experiment with adding certifications or certificates to transfer studies.
“It is incumbent upon the leadership in community colleges to identify those skills that are most in demand in their region,” said Schneider. “They should find out what skills that are in demand and they should figure out how to incorporate those into the course of study.”
Talking about the financial and logistical constraints, Schneider said he recognizes that adapting curriculums is not a easy because “to do good career technical education requires equipment, laboratories and machinery. Some of it is very expensive and community colleges are not rolling in money.”
Referring to cyber security, he added that retaining instructors who can teach this hot field is a constant challenge. “You have to pay them more money, and they are going to be being recruited day in and day out,” he said.
In light of these challenges, Schneider said regions must “balance the more expensive input given the fact that these students do so well on the other side. And I think that governors and school community college districts have to understand it."
- American Enterprise Institute Saving the Associate of Arts Degree