A college degree isn’t as common as you might think. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, only 34.9 percent of working Americans have a four-year college degree.
Some states are more educated than others. For example, Massachusetts and The District of Columbia are particular draws for grads, with 49 percent and 66.3 percent, respectively, having earned a bachelor’s degree or better. On the flip side, less than one-quarter of Mississippi workers have at least a bachelor’s degree.1
Sobering as those stats may be, it’s important to note that the EPI’s figures don’t count associate degree earners as having completed college. And while that’s technically true, it’s also a missed opportunity. Associate degree holders tend to earn materially more than those who never went beyond high school. They can also qualify for better jobs, according to Dr. Barbara L. Brown, assistant vice chancellor for transitional and general education with the University System of Georgia.
As she sees it, helping more students get their associate degrees could be a boon for middle class America.
The Surprising Value of an Associate Degree
Key to the effort is finding students who’ve invested in some coursework at the two-year level before transferring or pausing their college careers. They may be due an associate degree they’ve yet to claim; Brown and her team of researchers are compiling data to find out how many of these students are lurking in the University System of Georgia.
There’s good reason to root for her. While you wouldn’t know it from the EPI data, there is a provable earnings difference between those who stop their education after high school and those who seek an associate degree. A Pew Research Center report published in 2014 found that Millennial holders of associate degrees not only earned more ($30,000 on average vs. $28,000 for those who only finished high school) but were also less likely to end up in poverty (14.7 percent vs. 21.8 percent).2
Brown says that associate degree holders also tend to have better prospects. “There are some jobs that you can’t even apply for if you don’t have at least an associate’s degree, and others where having an associate degree is a requirement for promotion,” she says, citing local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies as well as fire departments. “So, while most people are interested in bachelor’s degrees, there is a real value in associate’s degrees for students who don’t have a degree yet.”
Giving the Middle Class a Leg Up
While all students entering college have the intent of getting a degree, plenty will either pause or end their educational career for a wide range of reasons. Some will get a job or pursue an entrepreneurial interest. Others will start a family and reprioritize college. Still others may be forced to tend to a sick friend or family member. Nationally, only 59 percent of first-time, full-time students who started pursuing a degree at a four-year institution graduated within six years.3
Brown says that some who leave or pause should have a degree in hand by the time they go, and her team has partnered with schools and Parchment to help put transcripts in the hands of registrars who award associate degrees. Already, 112 of the first 459 recipients of emails telling students they might be eligible for associate degrees have applied to receive their associate degrees. Three institutions participated in the first round: East Georgia State College, Georgia Southern University, and Augusta University.
A system-wide full-scale effort is in progress now, with emails being sent to likely qualifiers enrolled at any of the 29 schools in the University System of Georgia. Brown expects a big response. “We are estimating our pool of eligible candidates at potentially 12,000 students. They may not all apply, but if they came in at a 25 percent return rate — about what we’ve seen previously — it would result in 3,000 new degrees,” she says.
A National Opportunity
Putting 3,000 workers with associate degrees into the system won’t alter the economics of the American middle class. Heck, it may not even make a dent in the short term. But longer term, Brown’s efforts are instructive and provide a template for other state university systems. Their combined impact could be enormous.
“In a way, [the associate degree] is kind of invisible degree because everybody is so focused on the bachelor’s degree,” Brown says. “But I think it does have a value for those who get it: in terms of job mobility, salary to some extent, and just being more consistently employed.”
For middle class America, that’s about as good as it gets right now.