By on 3.14.24 in Education

Deciding which educational pathway to pursue is often a daunting decision for a high schooler transitioning to postsecondary education. There are many questions a student must ask. Do I want to pursue a credential or a degree awarding program? What are the employment and earnings outcomes for each? What programs are most likely to see me employed five years after graduation? What are their median salaries? Knowing the answers to these questions and weighing it against a student’s own unique passions and interests can help students make smart and educated decisions concerning their future. 

This post will provide some insight into these important questions using NC Tower, a web-based data delivery system, maintained by the NC Department of Commerce, which provides aggregate information (i.e., programs of study, degrees attained, and wage/employment information) on students who attended public universities and community colleges in North Carolina. in North Carolina. 

We will highlight some degree programs and credentials where graduates from NC Community Colleges are making some of the highest median salaries among their graduating cohort and examine employment outcomes for some of the most popular areas of study as well.

(We last examined this subject in a 2019 post, but it should be noted these two posts are not directly comparable. In this analysis, we examined only programs with over 100 graduates to minimize the effect of outliers and to ensure the programs we examined were largely accessible and relevant to most North Carolina students. Lastly, we used median wage instead of average wage, for median wages are less susceptible to outlier influence. )

What We’re Measuring

This analysis of 2016 North Carolina Community College system graduates reveals the top five degree programs, by credential type, where students earn the highest median wages five years after graduation, as well as the percentage of graduates with this degree who are employed or enrolled in school in North Carolina. 

It is important to note that this data reflects those individuals employed or in school in North Carolina and does not include graduates who have left the state and live elsewhere. The credential types highlighted in this post are certificate, diploma, and associate degree. 

Certificate programs

Typically, a certificate is a credential offered after completing a program in a specialized or technical field, such as HVAC repair, or as a credential required by a licensing board, such as the American Welding Society. A diploma is similar to a certificate, but diploma programs are frequently more in-depth and longer than a certificate program. Finally, an associate degree is frequently the most in-depth degree a community college offers, and requires more credits than other credentials.  

First, we will examine the top five certificate programs sorted by their median wage five years after graduation. As you can see in the chart below, Fire Protection Technology sees the highest median earners and has the largest share of its graduates employed or pursuing further education five years after graduation. Fire Protection Technology certificate recipients from the 2016 cohort earned an annual median income of $65,133 and 92% were employed or pursuing further education. This is substantially higher than the median earnings and employment or education outcomes for certificate programs overall. Among all 15,597 certificate graduates in 2016, 72% were employed or enrolled in additional schooling within North Carolina and their median income was $35,552 after five years of certificate completion.  

Now, we examine the top five most popular certificate programs sorted by the number of individual certificate recipients. The chart below shows the five most popular programs for the 2016 academic year. These five programs comprise nearly 92% of all certificate recipients for the 2016 academic year.  

Diploma programs 

Next, we examine the top five median earning diploma programs. As you can see, the highest earning diploma programs have higher earnings expectations compared to the median income for all certificate programs. The highest median earners received a Practical Nursing diploma, followed by Air Condit., Heat., & Refrig. Technology, Industrial Technologies, Transport Systems Technologies, and Construction Technologies. For the top five diploma programs, over 70% of all diploma recipients are employed or enrolled in school. Practical Nursing is the standout among the top five earning programs, with 90% of all recipients employed or in school after five years.  

The five most popular diploma programs from 2016 represent almost 97% of all students receiving a diploma in the 2016 academic year. Additionally, fewer students pursued a diploma in comparison to both certificates and associate degrees. However, a slightly higher share (77%) of all diploma recipients are employed or in school five years after graduation in comparison to those who received a certificate (72%). Lastly, the median incomes for diploma students and certificate students are less than $100 apart.   


Associate Degree programs 

Now we will examine the top five median earning associate degree programs. As you can see, in the chart below, Nursing graduates have the highest median earnings, followed by Fire Protection Technology, Dental Hygiene, Electrical Systems Technology, and Electronics Engineering Technology. Comparing associate degree median earnings and employment and schooling rates against certificate and diploma counterparts, we see an increase in the median earnings and likelihood of being employed or in school after five years for those with an associate degree.  

Now, we will examine the five most popular associate degree programs from the 2016 academic year. These five programs below still account for nearly 59% of all degree graduates in 2016. Nursing is one of the most popular programs and the highest earning program, based on median income. For the analysis below, students transferring to a University or another College were dropped, for they would in theory be pursuing an additional degree, likely altering their earnings potential. 

Overall, the highest median wages 5 years after graduation were earned by graduates with an associate degree, with the median being $37,200. The highest earning program was the Fire Protection Technology certificate, with median earnings of $65,133. The second highest earning program was an associate degree in nursing, with median earnings of $62,050. Graduates with a diploma were the most likely to be employed or in school (77%), followed by those with an associate's degree (76%) and a certificate (72%). The single program most likely to be employed or in school was an associate degree in Fire Protection Technology with 94% of graduates being employed or enrolled in school five years after graduation. 


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