Report: U.S. Fixation on Bachelor's Degrees Limits Students

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

Lawmakers and other public officials frequently tout the value of a bachelor's degree as the surest pathway to economic success. But the return of those degrees can vary widely based on students' majors and institutional characteristics, and some sub-baccalaureate programs may be overlooked as viable alternatives, according to a new report.

In the report, published by the American Enterprise Institute, authors Mark Schneider and Rooney Columbus analyzed data from College Measures on specific fields of study in Florida, Texas, and Tennessee public institutions. They used the data to track five-year earnings and expected 20-year return on investment for students in bachelor's, associate, certificate, and apprenticeship programs.

"For the past several decades, the nation has operated under a simple principle: The surest path to labor-market success is through a bachelor's degree at a four-year college or university," the report said. "We conclude that, if we move beyond our current fixation on the bachelor's degree and widen the aperture to include all the postsecondary pathways at our disposal, far more educational options emerge that can lead students to economic success."

Their research showed that oftentimes, programs at a sub-baccalaureate level produced comparable or higher returns than bachelor's degree programs. In Florida, for example, six of the 16 programs with the highest-paid graduates five years after program completion were from associate degree and apprenticeship programs. Students who completed a Physician Assistant associate program had median earnings of $112,200 five years later.

However, the findings also showed that those sub-baccalaureate programs that lead to higher earnings graduate a smaller number of students compared with some of the bachelor's degree programs.

The authors also found similar trends when estimating the long-term return (ROI) on investment in Texas and Tennessee. Of the 39 programs of study at public institutions in Texas with an expected ROI of more than $1 million, more than half are at the sub-baccalaureate level, many of which are also in technical fields of study.

Still, the authors said they presented the findings with some words of caution, such as lower completion rates, differences in individual ability, scalability, and "diminishing returns" to vocational education.

"Students, taxpayers, and policymakers need to be made aware of these alternatives to the traditional bachelor's degree and of the fact that these pathways may more effectively satisfy students' number-one goal: finding a job with good wages," the report said.


Publication Date: 10/24/2017

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