Is a College Degree the Right Choice for You?

One size doesn't fit all in the world of education. Although a four-year degree is a proud accomplishment, college isn't for everyone.

And it shouldn't be. The good news is there are many careers that pay good money to workers with a high school diploma or a two-year associate degree. But you have to know where to find the jobs.

Some of the hottest areas of the job market need no more than a two-year associate degree from a community college. "BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) data shows that most job openings are in those occupations that require less than a four-year degree," says Roger Moncarz. He's a branch chief in the Employment Projections Program with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The hottest areas are food preparation and serving workers, production occupations -- such as team assemblers, machinists, printing machine operators, welders -- [and] construction workers," says Moncarz. "There are numerous opportunities for people who don't go to college. Many of them happen to be lower-paying jobs, but there are opportunities."

Many of those opportunities are due to people retiring. The aging population is an especially big factor in health care, for example. Medical professionals are retiring at the same time as the need for their services grows.

"We certainly see health care looming large -- personal care aides and home health aides will continue to grow," Moncarz says. "There will continue to be high demand for those occupations.

"In recent years, despite the recession, health care employment has continued to grow," Moncarz adds. "Health care is an area that we project to grow at a rapid rate in the future, and there are jobs for people with less than a four-year degree in the healthcare sector."

Most new health-care workers get their education at a community college. This includes 52 percent of new nurses, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

"I would certainly say that anything in the health care field not only has job opportunities, but is a career of the future," says Laurie Quarles. She's a legislative associate with the AACC. "Those who've done the coursework in math and sciences are in a much better position to get into those programs, because they are competitive."

Also, nearly 80 percent of U.S. firefighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians get their training at community colleges.

An associate's degree increases annual earnings by an average of $7,200 (US), according to the AACC.

In 2009, there were 11.7 million students enrolled at 1,177 community colleges in the U.S. From those colleges, 612,915 associate degrees and 328,268 certificates are granted annually.

Price is a big advantage of attending a community college instead of university. The annual tuition at a community college is only $2,544. By contrast, you'll pay an average of $7,020 at a four-year public research institution, according to the AACC.

"A degree is just a piece of paper -- what's important is the learning process," says Ivan Desjardins. He's the coordinator of a two-year accounting technician program. "In some [career] areas the two-year diploma is basically the standard."

Graduates of Desjardin's diploma program find their skills are in high demand. And they can always choose to return to school later on to earn a degree if they want to become professional accountants.

"In terms of salary they're not making what they'd make with a four-year degree, but it's a great stepping stone," says Desjardins. "Some people are happy with it for the rest of their lives and others will use it to pursue something more in depth later on."

There can be big advantages to earning a diploma rather than a degree.

"A lot of our clientele are mature students who cannot go for four years," says Desjardins. "They've got jobs and families, [so] two years is more realistic.

"Diplomas are also more focused," Desjardins adds. "With degrees you have the first year that's more general. It's a tradeoff."

The Occupational Outlook Quarterly published a list of the hottest jobs that don't require a four-year degree. These jobs include:

  • Cashiers
  • Waiters and waitresses
  • Combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food
  • Office clerks, general
  • Laborers and freight, stock and material movers
  • Janitors and cleaners
  • Truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer
  • Stock clerks and order fillers
  • Receptionists and information clerks
  • Teacher assistants
  • Security guards
  • Nursing aides, orderlies and attendants
  • Food preparation workers
  • Child-care workers
  • Landscaping and groundskeeping workers
  • Registered nurses
  • Maintenance and repair workers, general
  • Maid and housekeeping cleaners

Those with an associate degree, college diploma or even just a high school diploma can also find opportunities as administrative assistants.

"We work with thousands of employers every day, and they're always looking for admin professionals... and very rarely do they mandate that they want a bachelor degree," says Jackie Kim. She's the branch manager of a staffing service in San Francisco.

"They're looking for basically a high school diploma [though] they're happy with an associate's degree," says Kim. "Relevant skills and experience supersede that."

"There's not a single industry that wouldn't be looking for an admin assistant," Kim adds. "Admin assistants are the backbone of so many industries."

What types of skills should admin assistants have? "Ability to use a computer, the ability to use office equipment, and work in a team," says Kim. "Ideally employers look for people who are confident in how they respond to challenges... and that's not college learned, that's life learned." Kim says she typically sees starting salaries of $30,000 and higher for admin assistants.

Whatever field you plan to go into, don't neglect your computer skills. Technology has an increasing presence in almost every profession.

In fact, earning a certificate or associate degree in information technology can be a great stepping stone to a career. Information technology staff often have less than a four-year degree. Technology changes so fast that taking courses while working in the field often makes the most sense.

A 2009 survey of 1,400 chief information officers found that 43 percent of them said their IT departments were understaffed. The survey was commissioned by Robert Half Technology.

"You always have to be anticipating that new jobs will be created with new technologies, but if you don't have the basic skills, with science and math, then you won't have the foundation you need," says Quarles. "In general, people who have the best chance of getting jobs are those with technical experience, are versatile, and have good communication skills.

"If you have technical skills the more competitive you are in this job market right now," Quarles adds. "Experience counts in many professions, but you also have to be on top of what the latest technologies and practices are."

Quarles suggests that young people try their hand at a job before committing to a particular field of study.

"I often recommend volunteer work or unpaid internships to find out if it's a good fit, but it's also a good way to make connections," says Quarles. "You might be able to find a mentor or better determine what course [you] want to take.

"Look to match up what natural skills and talents you have with what you're interested in cultivating, and also what's in demand where you're living."

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