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  1. Opinion

What’s a degree worth in different parts of Florida? | Column

Local labor markets, the cost of living and the cost of college all play a part, write two researchers at a think tank.

In late March, Florida education officials broke through the dark clouds of the COVID-19 crisis with a ray of light to benefit the state’s students. They awarded nearly $2.8 million to local school districts, colleges, and private entities to bolster apprenticeship programs in the state. The funds support training in electrical engineering, medical health, welding, and aerospace manufacturing, among other areas. At the time, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran remarked that, “This kind of workforce education matters for our state’s economic stability and vitality, especially during this time of trial.”

Michael Petrilli [Courtesy of Michael Petrilli]

He’s right of course. In fact, research shows that individuals tend to get paid more with an industry credential or two-year technical degree than with just a high school diploma, especially in high-demand fields. Moreover, two-year degrees in some medical and apprenticeship programs generate higher median earnings than do four-year degrees in some liberal arts and humanities programs.

But it’s also true that where you live can affect how much you earn, since local labor markets, the cost of living and the cost of college play a part.

Amber Northern [Courtesy of Amber Northern]

It turns out that’s particularly true in the case of Florida. A recent study published by our organization examined the earnings of nine different metro areas in the Sunshine State. It found that workers with two-year associate degrees came much closer to closing the pay-gap with college graduates in some metro areas than others.

Authored by economist John Winters, What You Make Depends on Where You Live looks first at statewide earnings. It finds that, on average, Floridians with bachelor’s degrees earn 52.6 percent more than those with associate degrees ($84,033 versus $55,085) and 83.5 percent more than those with high school diplomas.

But that statewide statistic masks big differences across Florida’s cities. Take Lakeland-Winter Haven, which has one of the slimmest earnings differences between workers with bachelor’s and associate degrees. On average, Lakeland residents with a bachelor’s degree earn $66,570 annually, while those with two-year associate degrees earn a comparatively healthy salary of $55,294. That’s a difference of only 20 percent. In fact, of the 104 metro areas across the nation included in our study, Lakeland had the second lowest margin between four- and two- year degrees. It’s behind only Modesto, California, where bachelors’ degree recipients make just 19.6 percent more than associate degree holders.

Contrast that with recipients of two-year degrees in Palm Bay-Melbourne, who earn an average of $48,630 compared to their bachelor’s degree brethren, who earn a whopping $83,657. That’s a 70 percent difference. The bachelor’s degree premium is also high in the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford region, where two-year degree holders earn $53,330 but workers with a bachelor’s degree 86,453, a 62 percent advantage. In the middle is Miami-Fort Lauderdale, where workers with bachelor’s degrees earn on average 55.4 percent more than those with associate degrees ($93,054 versus $59,885). The corresponding “premium” for four-year versus two-year degrees in Tampa-St. Petersburg is 47.3 percent, but falls to 38.4 percent in Deltona-Daytona Beach.

Our study finds a national pattern whereby the larger the metro area, the greater the premium to higher education. Specifically, bachelor’s degree holders in the largest metros make 57 percent more than workers with associate degrees. In smaller metro areas, that same premium is just 34 percent.

Information on earnings differences between two- and four-year degrees matter. That’s because, let’s face it, not every young person wants to get a bachelor’s degree or to work a white-collar job. Others can’t afford the exorbitant costs of a traditional college or university, especially now that the economy is in the tank.

So what should we be saying to young people today about preparing for their future? Surely we should encourage them to consider the apprenticeship programs that the state is already supporting. We might also ask them not only what they want to be when they grow up, but where they want to live.

In the end, high-schoolers must take geography into account when they make decisions about what kind of higher education or post-secondary training to pursue.

Amber Northern and Michael Petrilli are senior vice president for Research, and president, respectively, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.