Dive Brief:

  • Some associate-level programs have similar or better returns on investment than more advanced degrees in other fields one year after graduation, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).
  • The report points to some nursing and STEM degrees, in particular, as having high value for associate degree holders. Programs in-demand locally can also yield large returns, the report’s lead author said.
  • The analysis is based on program-level data from the College Scorecard, an online tool from the U.S. Department of Education. Researchers say having this data accessible could increase accountability among colleges. 

Dive Insight:

The Education Department revamped the College Scorecard last year to include program-level data, such as student debt levels and earnings, following an executive order asking the agency to expand the online tool. 

The data reveals that first-year earnings can vary widely within degree levels. About one-fifth of associate-degree holders earned a median of $24,000 or less one year after graduating, but 15% earned up to $48,000 and 10% earned up to $96,000. 

While selective and well-known schools often graduate students with higher wages, fields of study can also make a difference in earnings. Graduates who received their associate degrees in nursing from LaGuardia Community College, in New York, earned a median annual salary of $60,200 one year after completion, while graduates of the associate business program at Northern Virginia Community College earned a median of $31,300 annually. 

Graduates in high-demand fields, such as healthcare and STEM, tend to see high wages, even at less-selective schools. And community colleges often have programs that tap into local workforce needs. 

The report calls out the electrical and power transmission associate program from West Virginia’s Pierpont Community and Technical College, where graduates earn a median salary of around $80,000 a year after graduation. “This is not a market in which elite well-known colleges will even compete,” Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown CEW’s executive director and lead author of the report, wrote in a statement emailed to Education Dive. 

The report notes that students with associate degrees can have similar monthly debt payments as those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, though advanced degrees usually come with the highest debt levels. Earnings net of debt, a key measure of affordability, also tends to rise at each subsequent degree level. 

The researchers hope the program-level data will spur colleges to improve their programs that lead to high levels of debt or low earnings. Schools could do so by tying the curriculum to workforce needs, combining them with other programs or lowering the credential level — to a certificate, for example — so students don’t have to invest as much time and money, Carnevale wrote.

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