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Every year hundreds of thousands of students earn an associate of arts (A.A.) degree from community colleges in the United States. Most graduates intend to use the degree as a stepping-stone to a bachelor’s degree. As a result, most A.A. degree programs focus more on general education than developing marketable skills. Unfortunately, many A.A. students never earn a bachelor’s degree. Without this higher-level degree and without high-value, marketable skills, A.A. degree holders experience a wage penalty compared to their peers completing career and technically oriented associate degrees and, as we show below, compared to what employers are willing to pay better-skilled workers.
In this paper, we explore how to increase the A.A. degree’s labor market value and the likelihood that A.A. graduates can earn family-sustaining wages. We do this by first identifying a set of career areas and corresponding occupations in which:
Through an analysis of the job postings in Burning Glass Technologies’ proprietary database that fit these criteria, we then identify the skills students need to compete more successfully for jobs in these occupations. We also discuss mechanisms by which students and colleges can build on our analysis to improve the value of the A.A. degree. These include:
Many colleges already do one or more of these. But a more systematic approach to improving the market value of the A.A. degree is necessary.
According to current federal data, community colleges awarded over 670,000 associate degrees during the 2014–15 academic year.1 Some of these associate degrees are technically oriented, directly preparing students for careers in fields such as information technology, manufacturing, and health services.
But, as shown in Table 1, roughly 289,000 (over 40 percent) of associate degrees awarded by community colleges were in a single field of study: liberal arts, general studies, and humanities. Another roughly 100,000 degrees were awarded in related liberal arts or transfer-oriented programs including multi/interdisciplinary studies; area, ethnic, cultural, gender, and group studies; social sciences and history; and visual and performing arts. In total, over half of associate degrees are likely oriented toward transferring to a four-year degree program.
Associate of arts (A.A.) degrees are generally designed to be stepping-stones to a bachelor’s degree. When the process works, A.A. degrees permit students to receive two years of education at a relatively inexpensive community college and then transfer to a four-year school to complete a bachelor’s degree.
In theory, the transfer process can save students a significant amount of money. According to the College Board, in 2016–17 the average full-time student at a public two-year college must cover about $7,560 in net tuition, books, fees, and living expenses (i.e., how much a student pays after financial aid awards).2 At the same time, the average full-time, in-state student at a public four-year institution pays $14,210 per year. Thus, a student who attends a community college for two years and then transfers to a bachelor’s degree program can save, on average, around $13,000. As attractive as this transfer mechanism may be, the ideal of a seamless, lower-cost pathway from an A.A. degree to a bachelor’s degree plays out far too infrequently.
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