Health care degree leads to higher earnings

December 31, 2008

diana-furchtgott-roth_great_debate– Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.  The opinions expressed are her own. —

The economic outlook is bleak. Unemployment is rising.  Credit markets are dysfunctional.  Students are worried about job prospects, for good reason.

If you’re a young person choosing a career path, forget banking, forget autos, and forget Wall Street.  A new study coming out from the Hudson Institute in January, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shows that enrolling in a community college and earning a two-year degree or certificate in a health-related profession—the only field that showed significant job gains in November, and the one with the most jobs openings—can open a pathway to higher earnings.

These findings demonstrate that the role of community colleges in American higher education has been expanding for good reason: they are cost effective.

The study, by economists Louis Jacobson and Christine Mokher of CNA in Alexandria, Virginia, examines 145,000 students in Florida from 1996 to 2007, using individual data on education and earnings.

The study shows that getting a two-year associate degree in a health-care field — such as nursing, medical imaging, and physical therapy — gave students an unusually good starting salary, and a good return on investment.  Students with health-related concentrations earned the highest salaries when they left school, with median incomes of $46,000.

This was about $10,000 more than students who prepared for professional fields such as law and banking; $12,000 more than those who prepared for vocational or technical degrees in fields like agriculture and construction; and $15,000 more than those who studied in the category now abbreviated as STEM, which includes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Students with concentrations in humanities had the lowest starting salaries, with a median of $27,000.

For students who pursued a 4-year BA degree, the additional two years of health-care study made little difference in salary.  However, students who majored in STEM over four years pulled down initial salaries of $46,000, matching health-care earners.  Those who got a BA in a professional field, or in a technical vocation, earned $40,000 and $39,000 respectively, still less than those who took a two-year degree in a health-related field.

The data shows that while it is not necessary for students with concentrations in health-care to attend college for four years to boost earnings, students who go into more academic fields win high-starting pay with a four-year degree.

This is especially relevant in Florida, which has fared badly in this recession.  Its loss of 58,600 payroll jobs between October and November, a decline of seven tenths of one percent, was the largest in absolute numbers and the fifth largest in percentage terms in the nation.  Over the past year, Florida has lost 207,000 jobs and its unemployment rate has shot up from 4.4 percent to 7.3 percent.

In all, the almost 1,200 community colleges in America now enroll 11.5 million students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, or 46 percent of all undergraduates and 41 percent of first-time freshmen.

Average in-state tuition and fees are $2,400 a year, a bargain compared with tuition at four-year schools, public or private.

Do the math.  Two years’ tuition at your local community college comes to $4,800 (on average).  A major in a health-care field might lead to a job paying around $46,000. Times might be bad, but opportunities abound if one looks in the right direction.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at For her previous columns, click here.


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Prevention model, huh. I have spent the last 26 years of my life as an ICU/ER RN and this is what I have observed:

People will NOT take responsibility for their actions. Each and every one believes they are where they are as a result of being a ‘victim’ of something. About 15% of our ICU admits come from drug dependency or alcohol and their related diseases. About 35% of our ER visits stem from the same causes. Not especially OD but cirrhosis, pneumonia, systemic infections and so on. The hospital stays are longer (usually with Medicaid insurance), they require a great deal more of our resources and they for the most part are horrible noncompliant patients. So much for the prevention model.

I went into nursing because of two things: Job security (and that was a laugh) and because I love what I do. My advice to the new breed. If you don’t like people at their worst, DO NOT go into healthcare.

Posted by James Moore | Report as abusive

Occupational therapy is in high demand. I recently graduated from college and my professors continually reinforced the job security that came with an occupational therapy degree. It is a rewarding career that offers excellent options in the health care field and provides high salaries as well. Check out Degrees In Healthcare to learn more about earning a degree in occupational therapy.

Posted by ed | Report as abusive

Is there an alternative method into healthcare profession? Rather than becoming a Doctor or Nurse, could I enter the profession through an MSc Management degree and a passion for helping?

Posted by FootyR | Report as abusive