What do George Lucas, Walt Disney, Ross Perot and Tom Hanks have in common with Eileen Collins, the first female commander of a space shuttle mission and Dr. Craig Ventner, the scientist who sequenced the human genome? They all got their start at a two-year community college.


It’s well known that a college degree can lead to higher-salaried positions. While bachelor’s degree programs stand out over associate degrees in most industries, new data suggests there are times when an associate degree comes out on top. Mark Schneider, president of CollegeMeasures.org and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research reports, “Associate degrees are worth a lot more than I expected and that I think other people expected.” He continues, “In the U.S., we’ve tended to think that the bachelor’s degree is the only thing that matters and this data tells us that technical degrees from community colleges are hidden gems.”


Why an associate degree?

Associate degree programs focus on preparing graduates for entry-level positions in a number of specialties including accounting, building construction technology, early childhood education, computer programming, applied science, electronics, welding and nursing. Instead of taking a broad range of classes like in a four-year college or university, students usually enter with a specific career in mind. While this does not allow for the exploration of life-paths or the breadth of educational experience, it does help students secure a position without racking up huge college debt. Another option: associate programs start out with general coursework, allowing students to earn credits while deciding on a four-year program.


Finding the best fit

The quality of associate and vocational programs varies greatly. Check the school’s accreditation and then verify that the U.S. Department of Education has actually approved that accreditation. There are many programs out there, online and in brick-and-mortar schools, that make big promises, but their credentials could be fictional or without merit. You can check the Council for Higher Education Accreditation for a list of national and regional accreditation agencies, or search their institutional database to get information about the program in which you are interested.


When selecting a program, be sure to consider if the credits earned with the associate degree can be transferred to a bachelor’s degree program. Even if you think you only want to complete a two-year program, you may very well want to advance in your career and could regret your choice if you have to start all over again. There are four-year colleges and universities that have programs specifically designed to pick up where an associate degree left off, making the transition as smooth as possible.


Jobs that make the grade

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that while some positions in promising fields are available with a high school diploma and on-the-job training, in order to advance to supervisory positions, employees with post-high school training will have an advantage. In a highly competitive market, having taken some college classes generally increases your chances at getting the job.


While nursing is a popular course of study in two-year programs, the healthcare field is ripe with other high-paying and rewarding career opportunities that do not require a four-year degree. While a home health aide may find work with one month or less on-the-job training, many aides will have completed college courses in order to earn certifications that qualify them for a greater variety of positions. One common strategy is to gain enough education to get a job in the health care field and while working, take more courses to move on to higher-level positions.


Many health care professions require certification, and an associate degree is recommended as the minimum level of education. Emergency medical technicians and paramedics need certification, the highest level of which requires an associate degree. Dental assistants can train on the job, but those who have an associate degree can make 20 percent higher earnings. Other health professionals with a good career forecast include: clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, dental hygienists, medical records and health information technicians and nursing and respiratory therapists. Many high-paying jobs, such as phlebotomy technicians, radiology technologists, medical sonographers and physical therapy assistants all require the successful completion of a two-year degree through an accredited program.


Welders and machinists often train in apprenticeship programs for a year or more while earning wages, as do automotive service technicians and mechanics. More often, they earn certificates and degrees at two-year vocational schools. In order to move into supervisory roles in construction management, a minimum of a two-year degree is necessary.


Another field that is expected to grow is police and protective services. While some security guards and fire fighters can get jobs right out of high school with on-the-job training, guards who carry weapons or work in specialized fields, such as power plants, need more formal education and licensure. While many police and fire fighters attend academies, many also have degrees and certifications that require coursework at the college level.


An associate degree and related certifications are recommended for those who want to work in the computer fields, such as network analysis, computer support specialist, computer repair, webmasters, Local Area Network support staff, programmers, systems administrators and help desk workers. Without an associate degree, it is likely you will start out in computer support while training for a higher-level position.


In order to obtain the position of educational support personnel, including paraprofessionals such as teaching assistants, a high school diploma used to be enough, but that’s not always the case today. The same is true with daycare providers and preschool teachers. The job description may say “minimum of high school diploma,” but if you really want the job, get the degree.


The way of the future?

Some students may have their heart set on a private four-year academic environment and are willing and able to spend $100,000 and four years on a bachelor’s degree. Students and their parents may fear that a stigma of starting out at a junior or community college may decrease the future value of a college transcript. But think twice before discounting a high-quality two-year program. The Harvard Graduate School of Education concluded, “In the U.S. we place far too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college.” According to the report, 30 percent of the 47 million new jobs anticipated by 2018 will only require an associate degree or a certificate.


Jennifer VanBuren is an educator and Georgetown mother of three boys.


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