Associate’s Degree Recipients are College Graduates

Like most faculty members, I have my fair share of quirks, preferences, and pet peeves. While some of them are fairly minor and come from my training (such as referring to Pell Grant recipients as students from low-income families instead of low-income students, since most students have very little income of their own), others are more important because of the way they incorrectly classify students and fail to recognize their accomplishments.

With that in mind, I’m particularly annoyed by a Demos piece with the headline “Since 1991, Only College Graduates Have Seen Their Income Rise.” This claim comes from Pew data showing that only households headed by someone with a bachelor’s degree or more had a real income gain between 1991 and 2012, while households headed by those with less education lost ground. However, this headline implies that students who graduate with associate’s degrees are not college graduates—a value judgment that comes off as elitist.

According to the Current Population Survey, over 21 million Americans have an associate’s degree, with about 60% of them being academic degrees and the rest classified as occupational. This is nearly half the size of the 43 million Americans whose highest degree is a bachelor’s degree. Many of these students are the first in their families to even attend college, so an associate’s degree represents a significant accomplishment with meaning in the labor market.

Although most people in the higher education world have an abundance of degrees, let’s not forget that our college experiences are becoming the exception rather than the norm. I urge writers to clarify their language and recognize that associate’s degree holders are most certainly college graduates.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

3 thoughts on “Associate’s Degree Recipients are College Graduates”

  1. Wait, but this seems to indicate that the incomes of people who only have associate degrees did NOT increase. I think the important thing is not so much whether or not excluding the associate degree is “a value judgment that comes off as elitist” but that, in fact, the only income gains were for people with bachelor’s degrees. That’s perhaps why we tend not to lump associate degree holders in with “college graduates.” As far as income gains go, there actually is an important distinction between the two groups of people.

    1. Thank you for the comment. I completely agree that there are differences between those with an associate’s degree and those with a bachelor’s degree, but I take issue with the terminology. If the piece noted the differences (as they did) without implying that an associate’s degree is not “college,” I wouldn’t be complaining here.

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