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Today’s parents, counselors, and teachers typically support the concept that everyone should go to college and earn a baccalaureate degree in order to make a reasonable wage and be buffered from unemployment in the competitive and insecure 21st century. There is a large body of data, provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, which supports that view.


Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment

The figure below, retrieved from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website, shows the unemployment rate and the median weekly earnings in 2014 of the nation's workers by educational level.

Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

In terms of unemployment rate, a steady increase from 2.0% (the average for those with doctoral and professional degrees) to 9.0% (for those who have not completed high school) is apparent from these data. Similarly, annual income is highly correlated with educational level.

Converting median weekly earnings into annual salary, income is consistently related to educational level, ranging from $83,980 (an average for those with doctoral and professional degrees) to $25,376 (for those who have not completed high school).

So, there is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of education completed, the greater the probability of being employed and the higher the annual income.

But some students do not want to attend four-year college or university; do not have the academic skills to make them successful there; cannot afford to attend; and/or prefer to work with their manual, technical, or mechanical skills.


Many High-Demand Occupations Do Not Require a Four-Year Degree

There are many, many options for students that offer both job demand and salary equivalent to that of occupations that require a baccalaureate degree for entry. These occupations require education in the range between high school graduation and entry into four-year college or university. They are occupations that students can enter by obtaining specific certifications through specialized vocational-technical school, community college programs of study, or through completion of a associate degree.

Let's look at some of those occupations. I found them by browsing a U.S. Department of Labor website, which lists the mean annual salary earned by employees in approximately 1,000 occupations in the United States in 2014.

I was specifically looking for occupations in which the annual salary nearly equals, equals, or exceeds the mean ($57,590) for those holding a baccalaureate degree and that can be entered with an associate degree or a specific postsecondary certification.

The table below shows some of the occupations that I found and their mean annual salaries as well as the range of salary earned by those in the occupation contingent upon their years of experience, geographic location, and employer. (These are simply examples; review of the full list of occupations here.)

Table Occupations

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Using O*NET Online, entering the title of each of these occupations will provide a detailed description of the occupation and of the nature of the postsecondary education needed for entry.

These occupations are also noted as having a “bright outlook,” meaning that there is a scarcity of trained workers in these fields. There is doubtless a relationship between the need for more workers and the level of salaries being offered.


Encourage Students to Consider All Options

So, how should we be advising our children, counselees, and students? If they are students who want to attend college, want a predominance of academic work, and can afford to attend without incurring long-term debt, encourage them in that direction. Especially encourage them to use a good career planning system like the Kuder Career Planning System® to identify their interests and related occupations, to find majors and programs of study that will prepare them for those occupations, and find cost-feasible colleges and universities that offer those majors.

In order to control the cost of a baccalaureate degree, students and their parents should consider starting with community college, enrolling in the associate degree program, which is designed to provide the academic background to effect a smooth transition to a four-year college or university at the junior year level.

For students who do not want to attend college; cannot afford to, do not want to focus heavily on academic work; and/or prefer using their manual, mechanical, and technical skills; suggest that they browse the website cited above to find in-demand occupations that only require one to two years of postsecondary education and that pay a satisfactory annual wage competitive with that which they could earn after completion of a baccalaureate degree.

A baccalaureate degree is not for everyone, and there is no reason why it should be!


  1. college and career readiness

About The Author

Dr. JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey

Since joining Kuder in 2005, Dr. JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey, Executive Director of Product Development, has worked extensively with state departments of education and labor in the conceptualization and implementation of education and career planning websites that serve as a virtual center for stu ... read more