Associate degrees in fields like healthcare, technology, and skilled labor have higher earning potential than some four-year college degrees, according to data gathered by Columbia University and the Career Ladders Project in Oakland, California.

The increasing costs of a university education plus the growth of economic sectors that require more vocational training mean that a four-year investment is no longer an automatic ticket to wages that are higher across the board. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, annual salaries can start at $50,000 for students with community college credentials in healthcare, technology, and skilled labor.

Big Think expert Jeff Livingston, who is Senior Vice President of RISe, Readiness and Intervention Solutions, for the McGraw-Hill School Education Group, argues the our current conception of higher education does students a disservice. Many see their options as going to Harvard or working at McDonalds:

In the past, community college certificates were often intended to propel students into four-year degree programs. As a result, the value of an associates degree was not often measured independent of a BA or BS from a university. Mina Dadgar, who leads the Career Ladders Project, said of community colleges:

"This is an affordable investment. For many students, community colleges are a way to earn a family-supporting wage, but we don’t really think of them that way."

Part of the change has to do with foreign investment. Last summer, the German engineering firm Seimens announced they would give more than $1 billion in software grants to community colleges. The goal of the company is to help create a "highly skilled advanced manufacturing workforce."

Going forward, Dagar argues that policymakers need to create a more standardized certification system for associate degrees so employers recognize qualified candidates. She also sees the need for counselors who inform high schoolers about their educational opportunities to include community college as a valid—even preferable—opportunity.

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