With all the angst about rising college costs and student loan debt, many people have questioned whether having a bachelor’s or graduate degree always pays off. While holding just a high school diploma isn’t a better alternative (the average wage for a high school graduate is now below poverty level), there is a middle road to economic security – through associate degrees, apprenticeships and other certificates – that tends to get overlooked.
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A new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and Civic Enterprises found that there are 29 million so-called “middle jobs” – requiring education and training beyond high school but less than a bachelor's degree – that pay between $35,000 and $75,000 annually. Nearly 40 percent of them pay more than $50,000 a year.
“We were surprised that people still qualify for middle class jobs with employer-based training,” says Andrea Porter, strategic planning and communications director for the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. “We also found that there is a growing market for industry-based certifications, as well as Associate of Arts degrees and post-secondary certificates.”
While obtaining a bachelor’s or graduate degree still provides, on average, the highest lifetime earnings, acquiring some post-secondary education or on-the-job training has increasingly become necessary for finding secure employment today – particularly since jobs that require only a high school degree or less have largely disappeared.
“Our findings also show that people can still acquire middle class wages if they work in sub-baccalaureate health care and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields,” says Porter. “There has been a stigma to CTE (Career and Technical Education) jobs, and parents often discourage their children from enrolling in vocational courses. We found, however, that within CTE occupations, over 80 percent of jobs in STEM and health care pay middle class wages.”
Additionally, blue-collar jobs, which were at one time a common no-degree ticket to the middle class, now take up a smaller percentage of CTE jobs, as a shift to white-collar office and health care jobs takes place. Only one third of CTE jobs are blue collar, while half are white-collar office jobs and another 15 percent are in health care, according to the report.
Says Porter, “Parents and teachers should encourage students to become more informed about their career paths and should still encourage them to pursue a college degree. But during these hard times, skills and experience, whether through certifications or other options, can also help ensure a middle class job.”