CHICAGO (Reuters) - Despite images of shuttered factories and a chorus of high school voices chanting the virtues of college, you do not have to get a four-year degree to earn a decent living.
While it may be true that on average, people with four-year college degrees earn more than those who have not gone to college, a study this summer by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce finds there are still 30 million good jobs held by people without bachelor’s degrees. And 28 percent of people with two-year associate degrees make more than bachelor’s degree recipients.
The College Board reported last week that four-year college graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 earn $19,497 more per year than people with only high school diplomas – a sum that seems to make it well worth spending the $20,770 that tuition, fees, room and board the average public college is charging this year.
But if you do not think college is for you, it does not necessarily mean you will struggle to put food on the table.
Those in the 30 million good jobs identified by the Georgetown study earn a minimum of $35,000 to start and $45,000 by age 45. Eventually half the jobs pay $55,000 or more.
That compares, according to the Georgetown researchers, to people with bachelor’s degrees who earn a median $61,000 by mid-career and start at about $33,000.
A rule of thumb in borrowing for college has always been not to have loans that total more than a starting salary in your field. Thinking ahead about occupations and pay is crucial before borrowing money for any degree, because many students borrow heavily without realizing their salary will be deficient to cover loans.
“It’s the degree and the occupation that matters,” said Georgetown Center on Education and the Workplace Director Anthony Carnevale.
These days that takes advance planning and research, to find occupations that pay well, said research director Jeff Strohl, who worked on the study.
For example, an elevator technician with a two-year degree earns $95,000 in Florida, but cosmetologists average just $22,700, which is close to the poverty level for a family of three. A nurse with a two-year degree would average $46,000 while a health aid would make $26,000.
Despite the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last few years, 55 percent of the best paying jobs remain in manufacturing, transportation and construction. But these jobs are dwindling. Since the recession manufacturing has lost 1 million of them, and construction employs 1.6 million fewer people than in 2007, according to the research. To hire for a job that typically does not require college, employers often look for some additional education past high school to weed out candidates, said Strohl.
Good jobs have shifted to workers with associate degrees. They have gained more than 3 million of the net new jobs since 1991; a period when jobs for people with only high school diplomas has declined by 1 million. There are currently 123 million workers in the economy, including 75 million without a bachelor’s degree.
While opportunity is growing for people with associate degrees, Strohl warned that these jobs may lead to a dead end. Often people go to community college to get a two-year degree focused on the liberal arts. The intent may be to save money on the less expensive program and then transfer to a four-year college, but few end up transferring, he said. Courses often are not accepted by other colleges and frequently fail to interest employers.
The lowest earning positions for bachelor’s degree recipients are in the liberal arts and humanities – often starting at $29,000, said Strohl. Yet, business graduates on average start at $37,000, healthcare $41,000 and STEM jobs at $43,000.
Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bernadette Baum