A few years ago, the Florida State Board of Education released an extremely interesting bar graph. The graph shows the average annual salaries of individuals with various types of education qualifications. At the low end of the spectrum, as might be expected, were those who earned only a high school diploma. These individuals could expect annual earnings of around $20,000 per year.
While the low end of the spectrum should not come as a surprise, the high end of the spectrum should. The highest earners were those who earned associate degrees from community colleges. The next highest group of earners were those who earned bachelor’s degrees from community colleges; the third highest group were those who earned only a certificate from a community college. The fourth-ranked group, ranking only above high school graduates with no college degree or post-secondary certificate, were those individuals who earned a bachelor’s degree from a traditional four-year state university.
This bar graph reveals what many in the field of higher education already know: When it comes to employability, students might actually be better off earning an associate degree or a vocational certificate than a bachelor’s degree.
What’s the difference between a vocational certificate, an associate degree and a bachelor’s degree?
A vocational certificate is a skill-oriented “degree” that proves the certificate holder is qualified to perform certain job functions. A certificate is not a college degree in the traditional sense of the word; it does not represent extensive academic study, a well-rounded background or a great deal of time invested. What it does represent is that the certificate holder has the necessary skills to hold a certain job. Examples of vocational certificates include certified nurse assistants (CNAs), pharmacy technicians, certain subsets of information technology, auto mechanics, locksmiths, cosmetologists and many other job fields. These vocational certificates are typically earned in less than a year and cost a mere fraction of what a college degree costs.
An associate degree is typically a two-year degree that includes more academic coursework than a certificate but less coursework than a bachelor’s degree. Although associate degrees are sometimes viewed as inferior to bachelor’s degrees, there are many jobs that pay well even though they only require an associate degree. For example, RNs, respiratory therapists, dental hygienists, computer programmers and police officers often only require an associate degree.* For someone interested in one of these fields, earning an associate degree represents a faster route to a solid career than a bachelor’s degree. However, it should be noted that some of these fields require individuals to hold bachelor’s degrees in order to advance over the long-term.
A bachelor’s degree is the traditional four-year degree offered by most universities. It remains the “standard degree” that most university students aim for when they go to college. The disadvantages of bachelor’s degrees include time and money; it usually requires a good deal of both to earn a bachelor’s degree. The main advantages of bachelor’s degrees include the potential for long-term career advancement and the ability to gain advanced degrees. For example, someone who wants to eventually hold an MBA must first earn a bachelor’s degree in a business-related field.
Which is Better: A Vocational Certificate or an Associate Degree?
Between vocational certificates and associate degrees, which is more worthwhile? One consideration to take into account is a recent study from Georgetown University that was reported on by USA Today in June 2012. In short, the study found that certain vocational degrees actually led to higher earnings than associate degrees. Here are a few facts the study uncovered:
- Men who hold certificates in the computer/information technology field earn 72 percent more than men who only hold an associate degree.
- Overall, men with certificates earn 24 percent more than men with bachelor’s degrees and 40 percent more than men with an associate degree.
- Both men and women who held a vocational certificate earned 20 percent more than men and women who only held high school diplomas.
An important point to note here is that the study found that men with vocational certificates generally earned more than women with vocational certificates. The difference probably has less to do with gender discrimination than with the fields men and women are likely to choose. Women, for example, are more likely to choose vocational certificates as a CNA or a cosmetologist. Men are more likely to pursue certificates in fields like information technology. These tech jobs usually pay more than the healthcare jobs women are more likely to choose.
Pay isn’t the only thing to take into consideration when comparing vocational certificates with an associate degree, however. The amount time it takes to complete each program, the cost of the programs and long-term job stability should also be taken into consideration.
As far as the time and money it takes to complete each type of program, the vocational certificate definitely holds the advantage here. Consider the story of Omid Khorasani. An Iranian immigrant, Khorasani had a degree in engineering. In the United States, however, his degree wasn’t recognized so he worked at a carpet store. Not satisfied with his position, Khorasani decided he wanted to become a pharmacist but didn’t want the enormous debt of student loans. Instead, he completed a vocational certificate program to become a pharmacy technician. He paid around $1,700 for the course, which he could complete in less than a year. Once he earned his certificate, he could expect to find a job that would pay a very respectable $60,000 per year. That salary, he hoped, would enable him to save enough money to pay for pharmacy school.
In summary, when it comes to vocational certificates versus associate degrees, which degree is better really depends upon the type of field the degree is in. In many cases, a simple vocational certificate is enough to earn a respectable living. These vocational certificates cost less and take less time than an associate degree. For many individuals, furthermore, both vocational certificates and associate degrees are superior choices to the traditional bachelor’s degree.
*Law enforcement agencies may require additional training.