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Do You Need a Four-Year Degree to Succeed?

For the most part, the days of landing a well-paying job straight out of high school without a four-year degree are gone. But good jobs with growth potential without are still available without the time and expense of a four-year degree. How? Through certificate programs and applied degrees, like an associates of applied sciences degree (AAS).

"Applied degrees, like the AAS, means that students graduated prepared for immediate entry-level employment in their field of study," says Alana J. Mauger, director of communications for Montgomery Community College in Pennsylvania.

"AAS degrees meet the basic general education core requirements - math, English, history, science and others depending on the field - of an accredited institution, but they may not incorporated humanities and liberal arts courses that are often part of traditional four-year degrees."

Mauger says health care and advanced manufacturing are just two industries with plenty of careers that don't require a university education.

"The biggest difference with us [compared to four-year schools] is we're faster and more hands-on. Students jump right into their chosen career path immediately," says Dusten Carlson, marketing coordinator for Rockford Career College in Illinois. "It's education on purpose. People come with a set goal in mind and they achieve it."

Rockford Career College, which was founded in 1862, is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, and has articulation agreements with several four-year schools, meaning students' credits will transfer. Articulation agreements are fairly standard at community colleges, but not all vocational schools or career colleges are accredited or have articulation agreements. It's an important detail if you think you might want to continue your education later on.

"Our associate graduates can go on and do a fairly fast bachelor's degree," says Ann Stites, director of career services at Rockford Career College.

Students can start with certificate programs and "ladder" additional skills and credentials as they advance their career. Stites says certified nurse assistant students often return for a 10-week phlebotomy course, and perhaps get certified as patient care technicians.

"Then they'll come back and do an associate's program to become a medical assistant. Because they've completed the phlebotomy and other components, they can fast track their degree." Likewise, a vet tech might decide to work their way through veterinary school, or a paralegal may want to enroll in law school.

"Certificates provide a specific job-ready skill," Mauger says."Certificates are also a good tool when someone wants to gain additional skills and credentials that may help them advance on the job."

She notes an alumna who earned an AAS in dental hygiene who is about to become a dentist. Employers often pay some or all educational costs of workers pursuing certificates or additional degrees that help them better perform their jobs.

Stites says a medical assistant has numerous career options, including patient care, medical records management and working as a lab assistant. "They don't just have to be a medical assistant in a doctor's office," she says.

"There are many rewarding careers that require only a certificate or an associate's degree," Mauger says.

A few other positions requiring a two-year degree or certification include:

  • Radiologic Technician
  • Surgical Technologist
  • Medical Assistant
  • Medical Laboratory Technician
  • Dental Hygienist
  • Medical Billing and Coding
  • Automotive Technology
  • Office Administration
  • Digital Broadcasting
  • Sound Recording and Music Technology
  • Paralegal
  • Veterinary Technician
  • Massage Therapist
  • Information Technology
  • Pharmacy Technician

"Many AAS programs require students pass industry certification and licensing exams prior to graduating," Mauger says.

Employers are actively looking for qualified applicants. Stites and Carson say veterinary technicians and massage therapists are in especially high demand in their area.

"There's no shortage of employers beating down our doors asking for our graduates," Carlson says. "But that's a good problem to have."

These types of programs are for students who know what they want to do, and who want to get a job as quickly as possible. While that often means students in their 20s and early 30s, that's not always the case.

Stites recently spoke with a 17-year-old student who told her that at age 15 she'd planned to graduate high school early, enroll at the career college and be gainfully employed in her chosen field by age 19. "And she's right on track," Stites says.

While high school graduates and GED holders can still find work, Mauger points to an impact report from the American Association of Community Colleges that highlights the monetary value of a two-year degree.

"Nationally, someone with an associate's degree will earn $10,700 more annually at his or her career midpoint than someone without a degree, and will earn $470,800 more over his or her lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma."

At her school, Mauger says the average student's return on their investment is $6 for every $1 invested in their education.


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.