The right amount of higher education

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You don’t have to commit to four years of college to increase your income

n choosing a career, it’s important to know your personal interests and talents, the job outlook for occupations matching your interests and talents, the education required, and the earnings you can expect—annually and over a lifetime.

Several recent economic studies shed light on the outlook for national and local jobs, and help answer the question, “How much higher education do I need?”

More job openings for skilled workers

A 2010 study from Georgetown University “Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018,” included these two conclusions:

By 2018, the U.S. economy will create 46.8 million job openings, and 63 percent of these will require workers with at least some college education.

By 2018, the postsecondary system will have produced 3 million fewer college graduates than demanded by the labor market.

While 65 percent of workers with a high school diploma and no college experience have household incomes placing them in the middle class or above, completion of an associate degree raises this proportion to 80 percent. Earning a bachelor’s degree pushes the proportion in the middle class or above to 86 percent.

Middle-skills jobs on the rise

One in every five jobs and nearly half of those that pay $35,000 or more a year are “middle-skills” jobs that require training beyond high school, but less than a bachelor’s degree.

These jobs include nurses, computer support specialists, auto mechanics, dental hygienists, fitness trainers, heating and air conditioning mechanics, hairstylists, paralegals, pre-school teachers, and medical laboratory technicians.

These middle-skills jobs are quite varied. In some you work with your hands; some require you to use logic and numbers; and many require you to work with people. A 2013 report by the Brookings Institution says that half of all jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the STEM disciplines – are available to workers without a four-year college degree.

Middle-skills jobs and
middle-class pay 

In their 2011 report, “The College Payoff: Education, Occupation, Lifetime Earnings,” labor market economists at Georgetown indicate that 28 percent of workers with an associate degree earned more than the median earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees.

That’s worth repeating: Nearly 3 in 10 workers with associate degrees earn more than do half of the workers with bachelor’s degrees. The high earnings of registered nurses have a lot to do with that, but it’s not just nurses.

The economic benefit of additional education and training over a lifetime can be substantial.

Some postsecondary education, even without earning a degree, adds nearly one-quarter of a quarter of a million to lifetime earnings.

An associate degree is worth over $420,000 in lifetime earnings above what you can expect to earn as a high school graduate.

Add it up and the middle looks like a pretty nice place to be!


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