Saving the Associates of Arts Degree/Saving the Liberal ArtsIncreasing the Market Value of Liberal Arts Degrees
Just how big is the skills gap in the American workforce? Our new analysis shows both the size and the cause of the gap depends on the specific occupation.
Liberal arts majors make less than other college graduates in the job market—but with a few extra skills, they can essentially erase that salary gap.
Students and educators are both struggling with how to keep liberal arts degrees relevant in the job market. In two reports in partnership with AEI, Burning Glass Technologies identified specific, practical ways liberal arts graduates can increase both their opportunities and their pay.
The reports examine career pathways for both the associates of arts degree, usually granted at community colleges, and the bachelor of arts degree from four-year institutions. In both cases, adding specific skills to these degrees can make them much more valuable in the job market. The skills a liberal arts education provides—such as critical thinking and communication—are valued by employers, but our research shows that employers still demand specific technical skills. Job seekers who can offer both sets of skills have significantly more options.
Saving the Liberal Arts
Are the hundreds of thousands of students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in the liberal arts, humanities, and related fields getting a good return on their investment of time and money in earning those degrees? Research shows liberal arts graduates are almost 20 percent more likely to be underemployed than college graduates overall. And liberal arts majors, on average, earn less than college graduates with specialized degrees.
But with the right additional skills, our report found liberal arts graduates could close the pay gap with other college graduates.
Our analysis shows that there are 1.4 million job postings potentially open to liberal arts graduates, and 10 career clusters that offer strong career potential:
- business administration
- data analysis and data management
- human resources
- information technology (IT) and networking
- programming and software development
- marketing and PR
- media and communication
Saving the Associates of Arts Degree
Getting an Associate’s of Arts degree – for example, two-year programs in liberal arts or general studies– can put a student on the road to a bachelor’s degree at much lower cost. But what happens to students who don’t transfer to a four-year college? How much is their A.A. worth in the labor market compared to someone who earned an associate’s degree in a technical program?
In “Saving the Associate’s of Arts Degree: How an AA Degree Can Become a Better Path to Labor Market Success,” Burning Glass Technologies CEO Matt Sigelman and AEI Visiting Scholar Mark Schneider look at the data and offer ways to strengthen the degree’s value on its own, instead of as a transfer degree.
The paper found that only 14% of those who entered an A.A. program had completed a bachelor’s degree six years later. Graduates with an A.A. degree make less than those with an associate’s of science in a technical program–anywhere from $6,600 less per year in Minnesota to almost $17,000 less on average in Texas.
Sigelman and Schneider offer a number of recommendations to both students and community colleges:
- Add the right credential to the A.A. or avoid the A.A. altogether. Fundamentally, students need to understand that skills, not degrees, are increasingly mattering more and more in the labor market. Given this new reality, students should explore the range of skills-based credentials that can produce good jobs with family sustaining wages.
- Align skills with labor market needs. To get hired for the higher-value jobs that are potentially open to graduates with A.A. degrees, students need to acquire skills in the following categories: coding and knowledge of occupation-specific software; management and business-oriented skills; and sales skills.
- There are several steps that community colleges can also take to provide guidance and help students develop marketable skills. These include: using guided pathways to increase the likelihood of successfully transferring from the A.A. to a bachelor’s program; providing students with information about the marketable skills most in demand in local labor markets; embedding these marketable skills into the curricula of A.A. programs; and establishing strong ties with local employers, both to increase awareness of needed skills and to provide avenues for students into employment.