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You don't need a bachelor's degree to land a high-paying job

Illustration by Cha Pornea

It's common knowledge at this point that the more education you have, the more money you'll make. Studies have shown that, on average, someone with a bachelor's degree will earn more than someone with an associate degree or a yearlong certificate.

But according to new research released on Thursday, there are also a lot of exceptions.

A new study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce finds a growing number of people without a bachelor's degree are now out-earning those with one. The study found that in the years 2017 through 2019, on average, 16% of high school graduates, 23% of workers with some college and 28% of associate degree holders earned more money than half of all workers with a bachelor's degree.

Tony Carnevale, one of the report's authors, says these findings support the idea that "you have to go to college" isn't always the best advice for high schoolers.

"The level of education matters less," explains Carnevale, who also directs the Center on Education and the Workforce. "Where you go matters less ... which makes this whole experience and the set of decisions students have to make a lot more complicated."

The new report suggests that a student's field of study, the type of job they're training for and where they live can affect their earnings more than their type of degree. "Your specific education has its value and the value varies enormously," Carnevale says. "That's why somebody who can do air conditioning will make more than somebody who becomes a schoolteacher."

And not just air conditioning — air traffic controllers, construction inspectors, respiratory therapists and cardiovascular technicians all earn more than, or about the same as, the median bachelor's degree holder.

There aren't enough school counselors to help students make informed decisions

Back in high school, Isis Harris never imagined herself working as an electrician — everyone around her was just so focused on college.

"College was the thing, the big thing, in high school," remembers Harris, 44. "The friends that I had there were going to college ... that's what the big excitement was around."

After meandering for more than a decade — taking some college classes and holding lots of different jobs — Harris signed up for a course designed to let her sample different jobs in the construction industry. One of the activities involved wiring a lightbulb.

"Wiring that circuit, I did it correctly and the light came on and I was like, 'This is it!' The light came on for me. That was the trade for me."

Now she's just a few months away from becoming a licensed journeyman electrician in Portland, Ore. She spends her days working on a new construction site, where her most recent task was running low voltage wire underneath a new floor to connect a thermostat. Her hourly wage adds up to about $80,000 for full-time work per year.

Harris says she wishes she had found this path sooner. Back in high school, "nobody ever talked about apprenticeships," she says. "I think there was always a misconception about trade workers and skilled trades and the viability of that career and how it could actually provide the same type of lifestyle that a bachelor's [could]."

One thing that could help correct that misconception, according to the report authors, would be for schools to employ more career counselors to guide students through the complex web of post-high school options.

"The simple advice to high school students to 'go to college' no longer suffices," the authors write. Instead, counselors need to walk students through the many different paths they can take.

But career counselors can be hard to find. In the 2014-2015 school year, the student-to-counselor ratio was about 482:1, according to research from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

"There is a lack of access to college counseling," says Jonathan Ruiz, a college adviser working with KC Scholars in the Kansas City metro area. He's been in schools where counselors are overworked with too many students to serve. He says not only is there not enough time in the day to meet one-on-one with students, but there are so many other demands that get in the way of college and career talk.

"Usually we have counselors working with scheduling and making sure people can graduate on time," he says. Mental health support is often on a school counselors plate too.

Ruiz sees his job as expanding the number of options students consider for themselves post-graduation. He gives them quizzes and resources that make them think about the skills and experiences they've had — and how they might translate into a career.

"A lot of students will come and say, 'I'm here, I want to go to college because it's expected of me,' or, you know, 'That's what I want to do, just because I heard it's the best thing for me,' " Ruiz explains. But just getting a degree for the sake of getting a degree has spelled trouble in the past for his students. "They're missing out on a whole bunch of options this way," he says.

Of course, education isn't the only variable that affects earning — there's also race, age, gender and location, among other things. For example, the report authors write, "Women have lower median lifetime earnings than men at every level of education." They also note, "Depending on the education level, Asian and White workers earn more than workers who are Black, Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, or Native American/Alaskan Native."

It's easy to look up promising careers that don't require degrees

For students who don't have access to a career or college counselor, there are a number of helpful resources for making post-high school decisions. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers tools to help people understand the earning potential of different careers. One of those tools, the Occupational Outlook Handbook, sorts career options based on average pay, the level of education needed and how much the profession is expected to grow over the next 10 years.

Ryan Farrell is an economist who works on the handbook. He says when he first got into the data, he was surprised at how many opportunities there were in high-paying jobs that didn't require a bachelor's degree.

"People getting an associate degree can be a little bit overlooked and there are plenty of occupations where that's the required entry level education," he says.

Even for people with just a high school diploma, Farrell says there are a number of high-paying trade jobs where workers get on-the-job training or can acquire skills through an apprenticeship.

That's how Isis Harris, in Portland, got her training to become an electrician, a career, she says, that helps her feel fulfilled both physically and mentally.

"You use your body, of course, because it's a physical job. But you also have to use your mind every day," she explains. "You get to create what needs to happen in this room. And at the end of the day, you look back and, like, you've completed this apartment unit. Or you've completed this office space. Or you've installed this fire alarm system. And you can see the accomplishment every day of what you did the day previously."

When Harris completes her training in December, she'll be in a job that pays about $100,000 a year or more. The job security that comes from working in an in-demand field — with wages that allow her to support herself and her 2-year-old son — brings peace of mind.

"Having a decent wage or a nice income, you can do some financial planning," Harris says. "You can save some money. You can plan for emergencies. You can do all those things that may not be tangible when you're living paycheck to paycheck."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 7, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story implied construction managers did not need a bachelor's degree. In fact, most do. Rather, construction inspectors don't need a bachelor's degree, but earn wages about the same as what the median person with a bachelor's degree earns.