College Value

Associate Degree Holders Want More Education, but Have a Difficult Time Getting It

Carol D'Amico, USA FundsBy Carol D’Amico, Executive Vice President, National Engagement and Philanthropy, USA Funds

USA Funds® and Gallup today released a first-of-its-kind report of the educational experiences and outcomes of associate degree holders. Based on interviews with 2,548 adults whose highest level of education is an associate degree, these research results offer important insights for higher education leaders, employers and prospective students. I believe the following three findings are particularly noteworthy:

Smoothing the path to a bachelor’s degree
More than four in 10 of the associate degree holders surveyed believe they need a higher academic degree to advance in their careers. And nearly three-quarters (72 percent) said they had considered pursuing a bachelor’s degree, but most of them (64 percent) reported they never pursued that degree. Those surveyed cited the cost of the four-year degree program, existing job commitments as well as family obligations.

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Source: Gallup

Clearly, there is significant demand among associate degree holders for baccalaureate programs. Given the concerns many four-year colleges and universities have about lagging enrollments, these potential students should be a market those institutions would be eager to serve. Of course, they would have to offer smoother, more flexible and affordable paths to a bachelor’s degree to overcome the barriers associate degree holders report prevent them from pursuing further education. By offering options for online learning, competency-based programs, and other innovative education programs, four-year institutions could help more associate degree recipients enhance their education levels and their career prospects.

This finding also argues for strengthening and expanding the relationships that already exist between many community colleges and four-year institutions nationwide and reviewing state policies that facilitate two-year degree holders successfully pursuing bachelor’s degree programs.

Enhancing experiential learning opportunities
One of the key markers that Gallup tracks as an important predictor of student success, both in college and subsequently in life after graduation, is the opportunity for experiential learning and work experience while in school.  According to the report, two-year degree holders were less likely than their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees to report having an experiential learning opportunity, such as an internship.

Not surprisingly, associate degree holders in education and health professions are more likely than associate degree holders in general to report having experiential learning opportunities. One possible conclusion to draw from these results is that students in all disciplines and at all academic levels may have greater success if their program were infused with some of the characteristics of education and health professions degree programs. These disciplines place significant emphasis on experiential learning, such as student teaching and medical residencies. They also are intentional about engaging employers in the education process.

Improving the financial return from an associate degree
Although 64 percent of the associate degree recipients report they are working full time, they trail bachelor’s degree holders in every element that Gallup measures of well-being in life following graduation. The largest gap between the two groups is in financial well-being, with 27 percent of associate degree holders reporting they are “thriving” financially, compared with 41 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients.

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Percent Who Report They Are “Thriving” on Well-Being Measures. Source: Gallup

Two-year degrees lead to occupations that generally are less remunerative than those for which a bachelor’s degree is required, but there are associate degree majors that lead to financially rewarding careers. In fact, a recent article by Mark Schneider, president of CollegeMeasures.org, highlights two-year degrees that actually beat four-year degrees in potential earnings. Students who are considering two-year degree programs, and career advisers who are helping students consider their educational and career paths, should emphasize two-year programs that lead to financially rewarding and in-demand occupations.

USA Funds commissioned this research, and a previous Gallup study that explored the education experiences and outcomes of minority graduates, as part of our focus on measuring the value of college. We believe that prospective students, educators and policymakers can all benefit from insights about the experiences students have in their education programs and how their education factored into their success in life following graduation.

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