When it comes to higher education, more may not always be better — at least in starting salaries for graduates.
State employment data that track the earnings of recent graduates show those who earned a career-focused associate's degree or postsecondary certificate from a Florida community college are in many cases making more money than bachelor's degree recipients at state universities.
The salary estimates were distributed during a state Board of Education meeting in December.
What the numbers say: Bachelor's degree recipients from the state's 11 public universities earned an average starting salary of $36,552 in 2009.
Those who received associate in science degrees from Florida community colleges earned an average of $47,708 — a difference of $11,000.
"I was a little surprised at how dramatic the differences were," said Stan Vittetoe, vice president for work force and continuing education at St. Petersburg College. But he and Ashley Carl, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough Community College, said the trend itself is not surprising.
Both said the two-year associate in science degrees are specifically created for high-demand fields in which industries need more workers. Carl said HCC offers courses in subjects such as nursing, sonography, radiography, dental assistant and auto collision repair.
"That's the prime purpose of an associate in science degree, so you enter with the specific skills for a particular industry," Carl said.
Carl and Vittetoe said the colleges consult with specific industries before setting up these two-year degree programs. If demand falls off, a program can be redesigned or killed.
Long term, completing a more-advanced degree still tends to pay salary dividends. Continuing past an associate's degree to receive a bachelor's or master's degree typically improves a person's chances for future promotions — and, therefore, future salary bumps.
When applying for a promotion, workers often find the position requires a four-year degree, said Drema Howard, director of the Career Center at the University of South Florida.
Howard also said students with liberal arts degrees take a wider variety of courses that help teach leadership, problem-solving and communications. Those skills will benefit graduates a few years down the road.
"My personal view, and what I see, is that people with a bachelor's degree can make themselves much more competitive," Howard said.
Still, the numbers prove "something like an associate's degree certainly should not be dismissed as a meaningless level of education,'' said Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Associate in science degree-holders tend to be older than traditional undergraduates at state universities and usually have more years in the workplace and lengthier resumes that can command higher pay.
But graduating with workforce-ready skills also appears to be one of the key components for associate-holders' strong earnings. While state universities work to broaden students' horizons with courses in philosophy or world history, associate in science programs at community colleges are dominated by job-specific training courses for occupations such as legal assistant, early childhood education, and health care specialties.
In contrast, community college grads with an associate of arts degree make considerably less —$31,836 — because that transfer-oriented degree doesn't focus on job skills.
In recent years, community colleges have launched a small array of bachelor's programs limited to careers such as nursing and teaching that have a demonstrated need for workers. St. Petersburg College, which led the state in this effort, dropped the "Junior" from its name in 2001, after winning the right to offer four-year degrees.
"We don't have any psychology degrees, or sociology or English degrees, or any of those things that are a little more difficult in terms of employment," said Willis Holcombe, chancellor of the state's community college system.
Jules Bruno earned a degree in English from Florida International University and says he's not surprised that the immediate earnings potential for that degree is a tad underwhelming. But he is continuing his studies, not entering the work force, with plans to add a second bachelor's degree in chemistry, a master's in the same subject, and likely a stint in medical school after that.
Eventually, Bruno wants to be a doctor conducting cancer research, and he expects his English degree will help him more effectively explain his findings in public — something he said many in the scientific community struggle with.
"I wanted to be more well-rounded, so that's why I did that,'' said Bruno, 25.
Those who completed shorter, nondegree certificate programs at community colleges also out-earned state university bachelor's recipients. Graduates of the shortest certificate programs (six months or less) earned $37,356, while those whose certificate training took up to a year earned $39,108.
For reasons that are not altogether clear, bachelor's recipients at private, independent universities in Florida are also making more than similar students at state schools.
Florida International University provost Douglas Wartzok suggested "degree inventory" may play a role in the disparity. Wartzok said private schools tend to offer a smaller selection of possible majors — with the available options generally focused on higher-paying occupations.
"Before making too much of these differences, I would also want to look at the data showing the average debt these graduates are carrying," Wartzok wrote in an e-mail.