University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Are there good post-secondary options other than the traditional 4-yr degree?

In The View from the OEP on May 20, 2015 at 10:59 am

Is earning a 4-year degree the pathway to the highest earning potential in a given field? Researchers studying the state of Colorado have sought to answer this and have found that there are varying post-secondary options that take less time than the traditional four-year path, but can be more financially rewarding. Researchers from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) have recently published their research on this topic, entitled “Education Pays in Colorado: Earnings 1,5 and 10 years after college” . Their analysis tracks the yearly earnings of Colorado residents that earned varying degrees or certifications in the state 1, 5 and 10 years after graduation. The authors found that there are numerous options in the state of Colorado for students who are looking for alternatives to achieving a 4-year degree. Perhaps surprisingly, some of these options pay quite well!


Figure 1 above is a snippet from the AIR study, illustrating the earnings for those at varying educational attainment levels. The figure shows that, during the first five years of their career, those with an Associate Degree in Applied Science have higher earnings than do their peers with Bachelor’s Degrees. Even ten years later, employees with Associate’s degrees ($54,146) earn nearly as much each year as do their peers with Bachelor’s degrees ($55, 287).

If we choose to look at the data on a more micro scale, occupation by occupation, we can pinpoint fields in which those with Associate’s degrees or post-secondary certificates earn particularly good annual wages. Table 1 and 2 below illustrate examples of this.


Students that have graduated with a 1-2 year certificate in legal support services, criminal justice and corrections, allied health diagnostic, intervention and treatment professions have higher median earnings than the statewide median.


Table 2 shows that graduates with an associate’s degree of applied science in nursing, allied health diagnostics and fire protection earned more statewide 1, 5 and 10 years after graduation. For a more in depth look at the research, you can read the article posted by American Institutes for Research which illustrates the earning potential of varying degree programs in comparison to each other.

Last year at this time (May 2014), we at the OEP hosted our annual conference on this topic. Our objective for the conference was to encourage conversations among policy makers about innovative ways to prepare all K-12 students for future success. The keynote speaker, Raphael Rosenblatt of “Year Up” spoke of the initiatives they are a part of in Massachusetts, also presenting alternatives to earning 4-year bachelor degrees. He noted that there are those that are low income, primarily people of color, that are unable attend a 4-year college due to varying factors. One of the key phrases in his presentation was: “Sending people to college is not the same thing as preparing them for success in this world.” Therefore, those at Year Up do not simply aim to push participants through college, but also to help the students grow into adults who are able to navigate the challenges of the working world effectively.

Year Up is an organization that seeks to provide every urban young adult with the opportunity to access education, experiences, and the guidance required in order to reach their full potential in the real world. Year Up partners with future employers who highlight the skills needed in a future employee and crafts a program that allows each participant to be embedded with the skill needed to fill those future roles. It has been noted that those that graduate from a 4-year college do not necessarily possess the skills needed to fill those roles.

Year Up is crafted around these parameters to ensure that its participants embody these characteristics needed to be successful at their jobs. Not only do the participants gain college credits through the program, but they are counseled and prepared to effectively interface with the real world and potential employers in the future. Visit the Office for Education Policy website where you will be able to view the presentation by Raphael Rosenblatt in its entirety.

We at the OEP have no idea about the best way to prepare ALL students for college or career, but we are pretty certain that most Arkansas schools have a great deal of room to improve in this area!

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