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Americans Are Cutting a Shorter and Cheaper Path to Decent Pay

  • Associate’s degree holders are gaining well-paid work: study
  • Data challenges idea of college as main pathway to stable job

Just because it’s becoming harder to get by in America on a high school diploma doesn’t mean a four-year college degree is the only ticket to a solid salary.

That’s because the number of so-called “good” paying jobs held by people with an associate’s degree -- which usually takes two years to complete and is offered by community colleges or technical and vocational schools -- rose by 3.2 million from 1991 to 2015, according to a study released Wednesday by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Over that same period, the number of workers paid at a similar level with just a high school diploma fell by over 1 million, the study showed.

The report defines “good jobs” as those paying an average of $55,000 per year, and a minimum of $35,000 annually. Associate’s degree holders have found such work in blue-collar and skilled-services industries, according to the study, which was conducted in collaboration with JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The study’s findings counter the “dominant narrative” that a traditional four-year college education is the only pathway to a stable, middle-class job, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and lead author of the report.

The report comes as both Republicans and Democrats in Washington are advocating programs that would boost training at community colleges and help Americans pay for apprenticeships. The push is a response to company complaints that they can’t find skilled workers, as well as the rising price tag for higher education. The average cost of tuition and fees at public, four-year universities rose to $9,648 in the latest school year from less than $500 in the early 1970s, according to the College Board.

While Americans used to be able to land assembly-line jobs directly out of high school, today’s manufacturing work requires more specialized skills and at least some post-secondary training, according to Carnevale. Good service-sector jobs such as diagnostic technicians or customer support specialists also demand additional schooling for around the same level of earnings that many high school graduates were once able to make in factories, according to the study.

Meanwhile gains in construction and hospitality positions for those with just a high school diploma have done little to offset more substantial losses to automation or offshoring in manufacturing and transportation, the researchers found.

Still, bachelor’s degree holders as a whole continue to out-earn their less-educated peers. And workers with a four-year university diploma have gained far more jobs since the 2007-2009 recession ended than workers with less schooling, according to previous Georgetown Center research.

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