With “middle-skill” credentials — an occupational associate degree or certificate — it’s possible to earn a middle-class living without heavy student debt, I write in a story for McClatchy News and the Hechinger Report. But most students aim for a bachelor’s degree. The A and B+ students usually have the academic skills and motivation to complete a four-year degree; weaker students usually end up with nothing. Many are “majoring in debt,” as Georgetown Professor Anthony Carnevale puts it.
By contrast, one-year certificates can be “trajectory-changing” for average and below-average students, said Brian Bosworth of FutureWorks, author of the 2010 report “Certificates Count.”
Those with the academic skills to earn an associate of applied science degree are likely to earn more than graduates with non-technical bachelor’s degrees.
Carnevale of Georgetown notes that while “plastics” was the word for jobs of the future in the 1967 film The Graduate, today’s equivalent term is “health care,” including nursing, medical technology, dental hygiene and other health care support jobs.
An associate degree in nursing, at a time when Baby Boomers are retiring, is now “the closest thing there is to a sure thing,” Carnevale said.
Also in demand: high-tech manufacturing, engineering and energy technicians and skilled construction workers with a certificate or associate degree.
Tip for Californians: PG&E’s Power Pathways program at a several community colleges qualifies students for jobs as utility workers. With a two-year degree, an electrician starts at more than $64,000 a year.
Associate degrees in general education do not improve earnings, unless the student completes a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, most community college students who plan to transfer never make it all the way.
“Huge numbers of people who go to community college get nothing out of it,” said Bosworth of FutureWorks. Students are far more likely to succeed if they start by earning a certificate and then return for more training when they’re ready, Bosworth said.
A vocational certificate is a more realistic goal than a bachelor’s degree for students with mediocre grades, advises (Professor James) Rosenbaum of Northwestern. In one research study, just 19 percent of high school seniors with a C average or below went on to earn a postsecondary credential of any kind.
“They’ve been told everybody can go to college,” said Rosenbaum. “But not everybody can take college classes when they get there.”
Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity agrees.
While A students should go for a bachelor’s degree, “most C students won’t make it through to a four-year degree but they probably could make it through a one-year or two-year course” that would lead to a decent job, he said.
President Obama’s college plan isn’t as ambitious as people think: He wants everyone to have at least one year of postsecondary education. One year of college, if it leads to a certificate, is what it takes to separate the employable from the permanently poor. Unfortunately, many people hear the goal as a bachelor’s degree for all. That’s not possible or desirable.