Since he took office, President Obama has been pushing to raise the community college graduation rate to answer our sluggish workforce and economy. A recent study on the earnings of college graduates proves that the president might be right on track – at least in Florida. The study, reported in the Miami Herald, shows that community college graduates tend to earn a higher average salary after school than students graduating from state universities.
What the Numbers Show
According to figures that were included in a report to the Florida State Board of Education Meeting held in December, community college graduates who earned associate in science degrees from Florida community colleges earned an average annual salary of $47,708 right out of school. By the same token, students who graduated from one of the state's 11 public universities earned an average annual salary of just $36,552. The difference, around $11,000 per year, is not insignificant for those just starting out in the professional world, particularly those who might be graduating with a decent amount of student debt.
Graduates of vocational programs offered through community colleges also seemed to do well after graduation, with much less time invested upfront. According to a report at Community College Spotlight, students who graduated from programs that took six months or less to complete earned an average annual salary of $37 356. Those who completed certificate training in a specific industry earned an average $39,108 per year.
Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, told the Herald that the numbers prove "something like an associate's degree should certainly not be dismissed as a meaningless level of education."
Reasons for the Difference
Some suggest that the reason for the higher initial salaries for community college grads is that the education they receive is more focused on specific job training and skills. As an article in Time puts it, "Universities still pride themselves on being havens for knowledge of all kinds, places that still hold subjects like philosophy or anthropology in high regard even if those sorts of fields yield little room for employment later on."
Willis Holcombe, chancellor of Florida's community college system, told the Herald, "We don't have any psychology degrees, or sociology or English degrees, or any of those things that are a little more difficult in terms of employment." Instead, community colleges tend to focus on programs that are job specific, such as early childhood education, legal assistance, and healthcare.
Other figures seem to support this theory since those who graduate with an associate of arts degree from community college earn an average of $31,836 per year. This type of degree is often less focused on a specific industry and includes more general education courses.
However, the age difference in community college students may also partly explain the discrepancy. Because more adults with work experience under their belts are heading back to school for retraining, they may be facing higher salaries out of school because of the dues they have already paid in the workforce prior to college.
Public vs. Private Schools
Another interesting finding in the Florida study was that graduates from public universities tend to earn about $8,000 less each year than graduates of private universities in Florida, such as Barry University and University of Miami. The average starting salary for a graduate of one of these schools was $44,558.
Florida International University Provost Douglas Wartzok suggested to the Herald that "degree inventory" may be a factor in the difference. Some of the private universities might be more particular about the types of degree programs they offer, focusing their attention of fields of study that are more practical for employment after graduation.
What about Advancement?
Despite the encouraging numbers for community college graduates just coming out of school, the potential for advancement in most fields was still greater for students with a four-year degree. Those who moved past their two-year degree to a bachelor's or even master's degree had a much greater earning potential over the long haul. Koc admitted, "Where the real difference tends to lie is where the ceiling of the salary is."
Despite this drawback to a community college education, many are finding that the two-year route is a quick track to a stable job and decent annual income. With job-specific training in fields where employers are still hiring, it appears that President Obama's plan to graduate more from community college in the next few years might be the right choice for Americans and our economy, after all.
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