In Praise of Occupational/Technology Degrees

Earnings for occupational/technology degrees compared to four-year degrees

Source: State Council for Higher Education for Virginia. (Click for larger image)

Here’s what stands out from this data table from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV): The average income (five-year-rolling average) for students earning two-year occupational/technology degrees was $36,600 a year within 18 months of graduation — measurably more than $34,500 for those earning four-year degrees.

Occupational/technology degrees are generally obtainable through community colleges. Tuition is lower, which means students need smaller loans. And the degrees take only two years to earn, which means that grads get to generate two more years of income.

Arguably, grads with four-year degrees fare better in later years as they enjoy opportunities to climb the career ladder. It would be interesting to see that data. It would be even more interesting to compare career earnings prospects (occupational/technology degree grads get a two-year head start) adjusted for differences in the cost of college attendance.

Virginia, like other states, hews to the philosophy that “the more college grads, the better.” SCHEV has the explicit goal of making Virginia “the best educated state in the country,” to be achieved not by creating the economic conditions that lure the best and brightest from elsewhere but by digging deeper into the pool of academic talent in order to feed more students through the higher educational system.

But that philosophy runs smack into two hard realities: (1) Thousands of students are admitted to college aren’t academically prepared to do the work, and (2) two-year occupational/technology degrees pay somewhat more, at least in the early years. Vocational education needs to driven by market demand, not arbitrary political goals.

(Hat tip: John Butcher)

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8 responses to “In Praise of Occupational/Technology Degrees

  1. re: hard realities

    1. – Thousands of students are admitted to college aren’t academically prepared to do the work”

    is this true for 2 yr college or 4 yr or both? And if it is true -isn’t it something 2yr colleges can address better and cheaper?

    why are we using this as an argument against – ANY higher ed including Occupational/Technology Degrees instead of advoctating FOR THEM – INCLUDING remedial academic if necessary?

    2. ” learning two-year occupational/technology degrees pays somewhat more, at least in the early years. Vocational education needs to driven by market demand, not arbitrary political goals.”

    what does this mean? Does it mean anything with respect to 2yr versus 4yr choices?

    I’m totally flummoxed by this view. NOTHING what-so-ever prevents ANYONE from getting a 2yr degree… getting a job… not needing entitlements AND THEN – if they want to go for a 4yr degree – they can and will be better prepared.

    I just don’t understand the basic premise of this post … It’s as if someone is arguing that anything less than a 4yr degree is questionable .. political… jeeze!

    Our BIGGEST program is that too many of the kids are not ready for college at end end of high school and that INCLUDES about 1/3 of the ones headed to 4-yr college. Where is the advocacy to fix that?

    • The basic premise is that the state set a political goal of having “the best educated state in the country” and induced Virginia’s public four-year universities to expand enrollment — regardless of whether or not students coming out of high school pipeline are college-ready material.

  2. where does “best educated” get stated to be “four year universities”?

    I did not read it that way – at all…

    ” “the best educated state in the country,” to be achieved not by creating the economic conditions that lure the best and brightest from elsewhere but by digging deeper into the pool of academic talent in order to feed more students through the higher educational system.”

    Is that what SCHEV actually said.. if it is I think it is wrongheaded.

    If someone else characterized it that way -then maybe get it better clarified.

    I certainly think the 1/3 who go off to 4-yr and lack the academic capability probably need to re-think and go to a Community College for a year or so then transfer but at the same time – any kid should be encouraged to think about Community College as a stepping stone to higher and better education – not a consolation to failing to go to a 4yr.

    we need people – to NOT get back-breaking loans AND to get a job – pay taxes – and not rely on their parents nor entitlements.

    that’s the culture we should be advocating – the opportunity – we should be providing to every kid – and THAT’s what will bring economic development and companies who want qualified workforces… whether it is HVAC or Drone Technology or Cybersecurity – none of these required a 4 yr degree to start out…

    • LG, I don’t understand who or what you are disagreeing with. The point of this chart, as Jim says, is that (on average) four years of college is NOT economically beneficial at first, and as for later, he merely poses the question, “Arguably, grads with four-year degrees fare better in later years as they enjoy opportunities to climb the career ladder. It would be interesting to see that data.” And you two seem to be in full agreement when you say “any kid should be encouraged to think about Community College as a stepping stone to higher and better education – not a consolation to failing to go to a 4yr.”

      Noted, by the way: you are the one who said “higher and better education” in that sentence, not Jim.

    • My maternal grandfather always counseled his many grandsons to “take up a trade.” We didn’t listen, but I know a couple have pondered that grandfatherly advice might have been right. He was a stationary engineer, like his father before him. He was gainfully employed throughout the Depression, owned stock and a summer lake home.

      I think one of the major barriers for kids getting technical or vocational education is the attitude of parents, many of whom think anything less than an Ivy League education means failure on the part of their child and them. My son, after trying a couple of other paths, has been taking automotive classes at NoVA, doing well, and enjoying himself. He’s working fulltime at a specialty service center. I’m quite proud of him.

  3. @Acbar – well you’re right.. Jim WAS singing the praises of OCCUPATIONAL/TECHNOLOGY DEGREES but in a bit of a back-handed way – like they were an unappreciated alternative.

    and it came after he had one blog earlier promoted the idea that occupational degrees might better be – privately funded – -and that coming right after a never-ending series of blogs incessantly whining about how the poor old middle class whose 100K family incomes was no longer sufficient to get a public ivy degree if the govt didn’t step up their subsidies or “make” keep tuition “affordable”

    I just feel that we should be PROMOTING the Community Colleges.. occupational certs, technology degrees as the defacto standard not some unsung less appreciated “alternative”.

    Right now many (not all) of the K-12 schools prioritize their discretionary funding (over above the required SOQ/SOL match) to the 4yr college path rather than community College/occupational certs/technology (Fairfax being a notable exception).

    Our goal should be an employable workforce FIRST that maximizes employment – people who can care for their own needs, pay taxes and not need entitlements …

    The 4yr path should certainly be offered and supported but not as the default – because – many generic 4yr college degree paths – no longer lead to a superior paying job unless they have chosen a field where there is demand – which usually means more rigorous courses and the need to do well at them.

    too many seek generic degrees these days at ungodly costs – shifted to taxpayers.. used to be a generic 4yr degree got you a good baseline job – that’s no longer true. I know a dozen or more young folks who got 4yr degrees and now work as waiters and other similar jobs “waiting” for the “good” job – which is more mirage than real.

    Community college occupational certs – are usually well targeted to what the local economy wants – and even a mediocre student is probably going to get a job and in many areas – it’s 75% of the students in the k-12 school.

    so it’s not just an appealing unsung, alternative – it ought to be the gold standard. It’s what students are expected to achieve – at the minimum.

    and again – if a kid is really smart, has really good parental support, and really wants that 4yr path – fine – do it.. but it ought not be the default for the average student or prioritized over the majority of students …

    the central goal of taxpayer-funded education – should be – a job.. an employed worker who can pay for themselves and their family needs, not need earned income credits, or subsidized health insurance, food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc.

    why? Because entitlements are killing us… and at the same time – we have good paying “technical” jobs going wanting…companies having to get H1B visas to import qualified workers, or going overseas for their workforce.

    A Technical Education needs to be the goal ..not 4yr college.

  4. actually more than just a “technical” education but the technical education is an imperative… not just a debate between it and a 4yr choice..

    The reality that “career” jobs are fewer and fewer and will likely shrink down to mostly govt jobs – and that means things like pensions and health insurance will also become transient.

    more and more “sharing economy” jobs

    the need for workers to have both – portable pensions and portable health insurance and – a mandate to maintain each – over time – so that we don’t have a workforce that retires and needs taxpayer entitlements for their food and shelter – and their health care.

    so this goes back to our current education system and what it should produce in terms of an employable workforce….

    we have to get ourselves straightened out on this – or it won’t matter who wins the elections… much less what they promise…

    Occupational certs and Technical education are not some concept up for discussion – they need to be a strategic focus.

  5. Peter Blake, director of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, submitted the following email, which I reproduce with his permission here. — JAB

    The Virginia Plan for Higher Education (http://www.schev.edu/index/statewide-strategic-plan/overview) lays out goals that align closely with the points you make in your blog post. Our goal to be “best educated” includes not only 4-year degrees but also 2-year degrees, certificates, and other workforce credentials, including the occupational and technical degrees you mention. It is based on the total corpus of education in the state (as determined through Census figures), not on the number of degrees awarded by Virginia public institutions. Further – and to your point – to the extent we are a net importer of talent – through a vibrant economy that attracts educated people – then we stand a better chance of being “the best” (or second or third best, if that is our aspiration).

    Of course our public and private institutions will need to contribute to the base of education in Virginia, and we have estimated that we as an education community will need to confer an additional cumulative 1.5 million degrees, certificates and credentials between now and 2030. Of the record 119,934 degrees and credentials awarded in Virginia last year, 35,880 – 30 percent – were associate degrees or certificates (41 percent if you look just at public institutions). A summary of our recent degree and certificate awards report can be found here: http://www.schev.edu/index/reports/schev-reports/degree-and-certificate-completions.

    Being best-educated is not just about the numbers, and The Virginia Plan for Higher Education also addresses “competencies necessary for employment and civic engagement” and “relevance to demand occupations across regions of the state.” Anything we do to “induce” students to enroll (in both universities and community colleges) will include expectations around high quality and performance.

    You asked about wage outcomes over a longer period of time. Here is a report that shows wages of graduates up to 20 years after graduation.
    http://research.schev.edu/EOM/EOM18_Report.asp

    Finally, here is a report from the Lumina Foundation that shows the percentage of working-age adults with a postsecondary education credential – four-year, two-year, or workforce credential. Virginia currently ranks 6th.
    http://strongernation.luminafoundation.org/report/2016/

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