Published oct. 14, 2013

Education pays. More specifically, the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree pays. That is the headline of the College Board’s new report, Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society. Increased levels of education are critical to our nation’s prosperity, civic life, and our future—no question. But this “more is better” message and the disproportionate focus on the BA degree in the public discourse on higher education elides the fact that there are subbaccaulareate (sub-BA) credentials that pay, too, such as industry-based certifications, postsecondary certificates, and associate’s degrees.

According to The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University (Center), one in every five jobs and half of all jobs that pay at middle class wages are “middle jobs.” These jobs pay an average $35,000 per year, but in some cases considerably more. The Center estimates that two out of five middle jobs pay $50,000 or more per year. Most important, these middle jobs require postsecondary education and training but not a BA.

The sheer number of these “middle jobs” suggests that we need more transparency and a vigorous national discussion about viable pathways to middle-class wages that is more expansive than the BA. Many students who seek postsecondary credentials juggle work and family responsibilities with their studies. Shorter-term credentials that still command middle-class wages would likely be very attractive options for these students because time and money are pain points and sub-BA credentials require less of both.

To be sure, there are thorny issues to navigate throughout this conversation. Undermatching, where high-ability low-income students enroll in less selective institutions for which they are qualified; and tracking, where low-income and students of color are steered to sub-BA options, are real issues that must be addressed with vigilance and great care. But they should not hold up a much-needed national conversation about viable postsecondary pathways other than the BA.

The BA pays. But sub-BAs pay, too.

Michael Lawrence Collins is associate vice president at Jobs for the Future and part of a team that leads JFF's Postsecondary State Policy Network.