Rising demand for associate’s degrees invigorates GRCC


A GRCC student works with a software program. Courtesy Grand Rapids Community College

Getting an associate’s degree might be good enough.

Michigan State University’s annual survey by its Collegiate Employment Research Institute revealed big job opportunity gains have been made by those with associate’s degrees.

“It is a national survey . . . distributed by more than 120 colleges and universities to their employers that have been actively seeking talent over the past two years,” said Philip Gardner, director of MSU’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute. “The survey is designed to capture recruiting intentions for this academic year and gain employer perceptions on issues related to college recruiting.”

According to the survey, the demand for graduates with an associate’s degree rose about 30 percent since 2011’s survey, while the increase in hiring of four-year grads was only about 5 percent.

Associate-degree holders are now earning more as well, the survey revealed. Graduates with two-year degrees are averaging $34,960 annually. Those with two-year degrees in computer science earn $39,408.

On average, the starting salary for graduates with bachelor’s degrees is $37,000.

This news is especially welcome to Grand Rapids Community College, which awarded 731 associate’s degrees in the spring semester.

The findings are a validation for the associate’s degrees provided by GRCC, said Kathy Mullins, interim executive director of the Grand Rapids Community College Foundation.

“It specifically validates to the external community the importance of the associate’s degree and how the work we at GRCC are doing makes a positive impact in the community,” she said.

Very few four-year universities grant associate’s degrees, Mullins said, which is unfortunate, because many employers are now offering employee benefits that include tuition reimbursement. Employers that work with GRCC want to keep their employees trained, she said, and GRCC fills that huge gap for the community.

“Given the economy of this state, students are looking for training that can immediately put them into the work force, so the associate’s degree is a good option for them,” she said.

GRCC offers approximately 38 certificates and 58 associate’s degrees, as well as and associates of applied sciences, said Fiona Hert, GRCC dean of the school of work force development.

She speculated that associate’s degrees are becoming more popular because many companies have spent the last four years retooling and reorganizing their systems. Bringing in someone who has a lower level of responsibility but can still contribute to the management of their organization would save money and solve problems, she said.

Associate’s degrees could be the way of the future, both nationally and locally, she said, adding that GRCC is seeing a significant need for such degrees in health care and manufacturing.

“We’ve been working as hard as we can with employers and the regional economy to show that an associate’s degree is worth it,” she said. “We need their input to find their future employees, to find the right skill set, to sit with us on advisory committees. This is something we can’t do alone.”

The greatest demand GRCC is seeing for associate’s degrees, Hert said, is in health care and manufacturing. She highlighted two employer-led GRCC manufacturing associate’s degree programs that allow students to partner with employers while earning their degree.

The first is the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership program, partnered with Paragon D&E, Autocam and Anderson Global. The second is the Growing Education in Manufacturing program, partnered with Rapid-Line, RoMan Manufacturing Inc., Wolverine Coil Spring and Woodward Inc.

Hert said she welcomes feedback from these companies and others that are open to partnering with higher education platforms to help themselves and students mutually gain from the process.

Gardner advises students to be focused, direct and connected. Although Gardner was pleased to hear two-year degrees are receiving recognition, he still believes the education system is not out of the woods yet.

“Good news is that there will be more jobs; bad news is the supply of new graduates continues to increase much faster than the growth in jobs . . . an imbalance,” he said. “Higher education will have to endure more rumblings from politicians (and) parents about the value of the college degree.”

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