Focus, Government, and Higher Education

Debate over two- and four-year degrees

There are benefits to both for job-seekers.

March 20, 2015
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LANSING — This spring, thousands of students across Michigan will collect high school diplomas, with their sights set on higher education.

But where those students can get the best education for their needs has become a matter of debate between the governor and the universities.

Gov. Rick Snyder has pushed hard for more students to consider two-year community college degrees, earning skills needed to fill a growing number of technical job openings across the state. In late February, he announced the distribution of $50 million in grants to community colleges to support technical training.

“The positive business environment and job growth are major reasons for the increasing demand for skilled trades positions,” Snyder said in a press release.

But the state’s public universities argue the best opportunities are still to be found in four-year degree programs.

“We’re scratching our heads” over Snyder’s priorities, said Mike Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, which represents Michigan’s 15 public universities. “These jobs — really, they don’t pay well, and the hottest jobs, best we can tell, require a four-year degree.”

So who is right? Statistics support both, depending on the numbers you choose.

In January of this year, the national unemployment rate for people with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 2.8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics report. This is a decrease from 3 percent in October 2014. For those with some college or an associate degree, the unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in January, up from 4.9 percent in October 2014.

But current job openings in Michigan offer a different picture. Employers planned to hire 60 percent more people with associate degrees in 2014-2015 than they did in 2013, said Phil Gardner, director of the MSU Collegiate Employment Research Institute. Of the 468 Michigan employers that reported to Gardner for his 2014 study, the average number of hires with an associate degree for 2013 was 4.1, but the same employers expected to hire, on average, 6.5 two-year degree holders in the 2014-2015 year.

Almost all employers surveyed expected to hire new employees in 2014-2015, but there was only a 14 percent increase in employers looking for bachelor’s degree holders. The average number of bachelor’s degree hires for 2012-2013 was 11.9 and increased to 13.6 for expected hires in 2014-2015.

So although employers are still not hiring as many workers with an associate degree compared to bachelor’s degrees, the associate job openings are growing at a faster rate.

When comparing the two markets, Gardner described the associate degree market as “really strong” and the bachelor’s degree market as “not bad.”

Gardner said the job market for associate degree earners may outperform the bachelor’s market in both salary and availability nationwide.

A USA Today analysis of workforce projections by Economic Modeling Specialists International from October 2014 predicted there will be roughly 2.5 million new, middle-skill jobs by 2017. These jobs require at least some college or training but not a four-year degree, and will pay at least $13 per hour. Ultrasound technician jobs are expected to grow 15 percent in Metro Detroit and pay $28 per hour with an associate degree. Chemical technicians in Metro Detroit can expect to see a 17 percent growth and make an average of $19.72 per hour.

“This is a strong market,” Gardner said referring to the two-year degree.

Boulus isn’t so sure.

“The governor is really very excited about these types of jobs, and frankly we aren’t,” Boulus said. “We really don’t see the evidence that these jobs are producing much in terms of opportunities for our citizens.”

The USA Today study also predicted computer engineers and software developers to be among the most lucrative and high-demand professions nationally over the next three years. In Metro Detroit, aerospace engineers can expect a 7 percent growth with an hourly wage of more than $50.

But the decision between a two-year and four-year degree isn’t just a financial analysis. Other differences between these educational paths cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

Associate degrees are about building defined skill sets and helping develop a flexible workforce to meet changing employer needs, said Lisa Parker, director of alumni professional and personal enrichment at MSU.

Four-year degrees, Parker said, focus on particular job skills to build knowledge in multiple disciplines, critical thinking and global understanding.

“Education is valuable,” Parker said, “but to be comparing a two-year experience to a four-year experience is an apple to orange.”

Almost half of graduates with a bachelor’s degree or more education, 47 percent, say their education was “very useful” in preparing them for a job or career, according to a February 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. Among associate degree graduates, 44 percent found their education “very useful.”

Overall, those with any college education outpace those with only a high school degree in almost every measure of job satisfaction. As the educational level increases, so do people’s favorable opinions about the usefulness of their education, the study shows.

Legislators will have to decide how to balance the needs of community colleges and universities in the coming year’s budget. Snyder has proposed a 2 percent increase of $28 million for universities as part of a slow climb from dramatic cuts over the past decade.

Community colleges received a 1.4 percent increase, $4.3 million, in Snyder’s budget. On top of that, Snyder proposed $6 million for restoration of a financial aid program for part-time adult students pursuing a community college degree. The governor also recently allocated $50 million in grants for state-of-the-art equipment and better technical training at 18 select community colleges.

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