Mark: For the past several decades, America
has operated under a very simple principle, the surest path to labor market success is
through a bachelor’s degree granted by a four-year college or university. Rooney: But bachelor’s degrees may not always
be the best option for all students. For starters, they’re expensive. They take at least twice as long to complete
as associate degrees. Large numbers of students who start on the
path to bachelor’s degrees will never finish, merely ending up with debt and regret. Mark: Basically, it’s time for America to
rethink the bachelor’s degree addiction. Students enroll in college for a variety of
reasons. To get a general education. To learn more about what interests them. To find purpose in their lives. That’s all true, But time and time again,
surveys tell us that the primary reason students attend college is to find a good job with
good wages. Is the bachelor’s degree a sure fire way to
get there? Not always. Let’s look at some data. Business administration majors with bachelor’s
degrees from the University of Texas at Austin clearly earn more than sociology majors with
the same degree from the same school one year after graduation. But now, head east of Austin and you’ll find
associate degree holders who out-earn the business major now and even in the long run. Rooney: And this isn’t as rare as you might
think, either. Check out Florida, for example. Students graduating from public colleges might
leave school with a bachelor’s degree making less than $25,000 per year 5 years after school. For instance, an associate degree in photography
will get you $21,000 a year. But so might a bachelor’s degree in exercise
physiology. Now, on the flip side, Florida’s graduates
could earn median salaries over $75,000 if they choose the right associate degree or
apprenticeship program from the right school. That’s right, an elevator constructor apprenticeship
can get you $96,000, 5 years after completion. Mark: Across the states, you find many programs
bachelor’s degrees or otherwise that provide avenues to the middle class. You’ll also find many programs that middle-class
aspirants should avoid altogether. Other studies are finding similar things. Certificate and associate degree holders in
many applied or technical fields can actually out-earn their bachelor’s degree counterparts
five years post-completion with graduates from some programs maintaining the earnings
advantage at least 10 years after completion. Rooney: The biggest takeaway, majors matter. Choosing to study the right thing is key. In fact, most of the programs that lead to
high wages have one thing in common, they produce graduates who know how to build things,
they know how to fix things. Mark: Now, before we get too carried away
with the data, here are some caveats. Remember, more often than not, a bachelor’s
degree can get you more money over the long haul. The Georgetown Center on Education and the
Workforce estimates that 28% of workers with an associate degree earn more than the median
earnings of workers with a bachelor’s degree. But not always. Rooney: Consider also the amount of money
that you might have to put up in tuition to earn the bachelor’s degree to secure that
better outcome after graduation, as opposed to other certain shorter or cheaper alternatives. Researchers also aren’t entirely sure if different
programs make valuable graduates or if certain programs attract students who are inherently
marketable. The most likely answer is that it’s a combination
of both. The scale of these programs also needs to
be considered. Floridians completing an elevator mechanic
apprenticeship might just earn more money because there are less students completing
that program. Lower wages for bachelor’s degrees in the
arts and humanities might represent an over-saturation of the market. Remember, too, these data portray median earnings. Half make more and half make less. Finally, comparative advantage is relevant
here. A high-earning or high-ability English major
can’t always pivot to become a high-earning or a high-ability physics major. Prior skills and prior interest plays a necessary
part in the outcomes of different individuals. All that said, the main point here is that
there are many paths to the middle class that do not have to run through four years at a
traditional college. Associate degrees, apprenticeship programs,
certificates, and certifications can all result in high wages and a successful future for
many Americans. With better information, students can make
better choices and many young people can enjoy the benefits of post-secondary education while
mitigating its costs. Mark: Indeed, rethinking America’s bachelor’s
degree addiction will help more students more affordably secure what they want. A good job with good wages. Thank you all for watching. To learn more about my take on the bachelor’s
degree addiction, check out the link to “Degrees of Opportunity” in the description below. Also let us know what other topics you’d like
AEI scholars to cover on “Rethink Tank,” and be sure to subscribe to more videos and research
from AEI.