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High pay, low costs make two-year college increasingly appealing for Puget Sound grads

A Renton Technical College student works on new technology in a recent course at the school, which boasts an 85% post-graduation job placement rate. (Renton Technical College)
LISTEN: High pay, low cost makes two year colleges increasingly appealing

It’s college graduation season, with thousands donning the cap and gown Saturday at the University of Washington.

But many students face an uncertain future of debt and limited job prospects, not to mention moving back into their parent’s basements.

That’s making two-year and technical schools far more appealing to many.

Community colleges such as Renton Technical College have often been viewed as the black sheep, a poor cousin to a four year program.

But when you start digging into the numbers, they start to look a lot more appealing.

“We have a [job] placement rate of about 85 percent overall, and that’s within the first nine months,” said RTC President Kevin McCarthy. He heads what the Aspen Institute has named one of the top 10 community colleges in the country.

And for good reason. The school is more than just a stop on the road to transferring to a four-year school.

It’s become a key training ground for successful careers in fields such as computer science, business, culinary arts, allied health and many other trades.

“We’ve got students coming out of their programs that’ll be earning more than their instructors. Some of our auto people are earning – in a mid-career – in the six figures. Medical professionals that are earning in the high five and even six figures,” McCarthy said.

You’d expect him to say that, but studies increasingly back him up.

A number of reports confirm having a degree of any kind significantly increases your lifetime earning power.

But newer research finds for many that a two-year degree or certification is a much better return on investment when you factor in both cost and salary, especially when you consider how much student loan debt many college grads graduate with.

It’s what prompted 23-year-old Kelsay Arnold to enroll in RTC’s medical assistant program after several years of hanging out and working low-paying, dead-end retail jobs.

“I’m not going to lie, I procrastinated for a couple of years. But I decided I needed to go into the field I wanted to, which is the medical field. Not retail,” she said.

When she graduates, she’s virtually guaranteed a job in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is one of the fastest growing occupations – with a median salary of $51,000.

A big reason: schools like RTC give students real training almost immediately, unlike many four-year schools.

“So whether it’s writing code on the third day of the applications development course or the medical assistants very quickly jumping into taking blood, making EKG’s, things like that,” McCarthy said.

Medical assistant student Hailey Defoe, 23, says another big advantage is instructors like James Robinson, who has extensive experience and connections in the field.

“He’s connected with so many different people in medical assisting, dozens of clinics across Washington. And he really believes in putting the students first. And he doesn’t teach us the way he was taught or the way he looks at us, he teaches the way we learn,” Defoe said.

Two-year schools can also be far more nimble and target their offerings to specific job fields – rather than cutting a much broader swath.

“When we set up our programs, we have a lot of work with the advisory boards that have members of industry on them,” McCarthy said.

“They know what the education is going to be and we’re in constant touch with them about how we need to change programs to suit our needs.”

Ultimately, a four-year degree still tends to pay off better in the long-run for many job fields.

The Wall Street Journal reported economists found bachelor’s degree holders made about $65,800 a year in 2013, while those with associate degrees made about $46,300.

But consider the costs: $110,000 to $130,000 for a bachelor’s and $40,000 to $60,000 for an associate degree.

And if you can make $55,000 a year as a physical therapy aide a couple of years out of tech school, the investment in a two-year program starts to look pretty appealing.

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