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Some 2-year degrees trump bachelor's degrees for jobs, income

Thinking about life after college: “A lot of young people think if they just go to college and get a degree in anything they’re ticket is punched and that’s not always the case."

We've heard a lot of stories lately about the struggles of young, unemployed people with college degrees. A Washington State agency says the reason for that is a lot of students are choosing the wrong majors for this economy.

If they spent less time and money on school, they might have an easier time getting a job and make more money, at least in the short term.

While a bachelor’s degree used to be the key to climbing the employment ladder, the recent recession has upset the normal path to success. Now, a carefully chosen field can be more helpful to young job seekers than that four-year degree.

First step to success

Bryan Wilson, deputy director of the state’s workforce training and education coordinating board, says the first thing young people need to do if they want to land a job and have a shot at making decent money nowadays, is to do is get rid of some old assumptions:

“A lot of young people think if they just go to college and get a degree in anything they’re ticket is punched and that’s not always the case,” he says.

His office found people with associates degrees are, on average, a few percentage points more likely to be employed in Washington than those with four-year degrees soon after graduating:

  • Employment rate for community and technical college (CTC) 2008-2009 graduates in WA: 70 percent
  • Employment rate for 2005-2006 bachelor's degree (B.A. / B.S.) graduates in WA: 66 percent

Majors matter

If you look at the most popular majors, two-year grads can nab double the salary.

“The reason for that is about half of the community and technical college graduates are in healthcare fields. And those pay quite well compared to other fields," he says. "While, about half of the graduates from our bachelors degree programs are in the liberal arts and social science and teacher education, which do not pay as well.”

  • Average salary for 2008-2009 CTC healthcare graduates working in Washington: $39,506
  • Average salary for a 2005-2006 B.A. / B.S. graduate in Arts and Letters in Washington: $23,858

Of course, the minority of university students who major in technical degrees can come out on top but, to Wilson, the bottom line is the field of study has become more important than the level of schooling. That is, until you get through graduate school.

People with master's degrees and higher earn more money, but their employment rate in Washington is lower. Wilson says that could be because many of them leave the state:

"A high portion of those students are from out of state to begin with and they come here just for education," he says.

Closing the technical divide

According to Wilson, the gaps are widening as technology advances. Yet he still encourages people to follow their passions. He just suggests those who chose liberal arts might want to dig deep for some time and enthusiasm for technical classes, such as statistics or economics, as a backup. 

The workforce board will be presenting their findings about college degrees and unemployment to a state senate committee on Wednesday, January 11.

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