A View on Higher Ed: Results show 2-year degree holders often outearn college-educated peers

This commentary originally appeared December 12, 2017 in the Duluth News Tribune.

It’s common wisdom in our society that you’ve got to have a four-year college degree to get ahead. If you don’t, you’re doomed to second-best in life, the thinking goes. This stereotype is based, to a good extent, on the belief that people with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make a lot more money over a lifetime than their peers. They’re sure to have nicer homes, fancier cars, more exotic vacations, and a bigger nest egg for retirement.


A new study from the Twin Cities-based Center of the American Experiment reveals that this common belief is wrong. Authored by Amanda Griffith, a labor economist at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, the study demonstrates that young people who choose alternative routes to a career — including a two-year associate’s degree, an apprenticeship, or an occupational certificate — often do better financially than their peers with four-year bachelor’s degrees.

In fact, computer numerical controlled machinists, medical sonographers, radiologic technicians, plumbers, electricians, electric-line installers, and other workers in similar technical fields can look forward to median lifetime earnings 11 percent to 61 percent higher than those who hold four-year degrees, according to the study.

This counterintuitive finding is based on two factors. The first is the relatively low cost of entering these technical occupations, especially when it comes to student debt. And the second is the relatively high median hourly wages of these skilled occupations compared to the median wages of four-year college graduates.

In her study, Griffith determined the costs of education and training as well as median hourly wages for workers in four categories: skilled manufacturing, health care, construction-related trades, and occupations that require just a certificate like HVAC technician and electric-line installer. Then she calculated an estimated median lifetime earnings profile for each, using median wages in Minnesota as a whole, and she compared it to the median lifetime earnings of four-year degree holders.

Using this methodology, Griffith found that over a lifetime, computer numerical controlled machinists’ estimated median earnings are 11 percent higher than a four-year college graduate’s. Millwrights are 4 percent higher. The estimated median lifetime earnings for electricians, plumbers, RNs with two-year degrees, and power-line installers are 31 percent higher, 49 percent higher, 50 percent higher, and 61 percent higher, respectively.

Demand is strong and growing for all the non-four-year-degree occupations Griffith examined, and each offers well-delineated ways to advance by climbing career ladders.

In addition, workers often can return to college for a “two-plus-two” bachelor’s degree — frequently paid for by their employers.

A four-year college degree is an excellent choice for many young people; it goes without saying. The Center of the American Experiment would never discourage a young man or young woman from getting a bachelor’s degree as part of a well-thought-out career path.

But today, about 50 percent of young Minnesotans begin a four-year-degree program after high school graduation while only 22 percent of the jobs in our state require a four-year degree or more.

We in Minnesota need to do a better job of informing students (and their parents) about non-four-year career paths that will prepare them to get in-demand, well-paying jobs quickly, to avoid a burdensome student debt, and to build a strong future.

Katherine Kersten is a senior policy fellow for the Center of the American Experiment (americanexperiment.org), a think tank in Golden Valley, Minn. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.