The cheapest route to a bachelor’s degree — in theory — is to live at home, go to a low-cost community college, earn an associate of arts (AA) degree, then transfer to a university.
Dental hygienists, who usually have a two-year degree, average more than $70,000 a year.
But many AA graduates never complete a bachelor’s degree, write Mark Schneider and Matthew Sigelman of American Enterprise Institute. With general-education credits but “without high-value, marketable skills,” they often settle for low-wage jobs. Five years after graduation, they average less than $40,000 a year.
By contrast, associate degrees in vocational and technical fields often lead to middle-class jobs. “Almost a third of two-year associate degrees and a large share of one-year certificates, especially those concentrated in in-demand fields like healthcare and STEM, pay more than B.A.s,” writes says Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
Schneider and Sigelman propose making the associate of arts degree a better path to labor market success by improving the odds of transferring to a bachelor’s program and embedding marketable skills in the curricula of AA programs.
Community colleges are learning how to help students complete a degree, writes Brian Jacob in Education Next. Students need structure and support, so they’re not “navigating a shapeless river on a dark night.”