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In the wake of a student loan epidemic where debt reached an all-time high in 2019, the question of the value of a college degree looms in the back of many students’ minds.

Research shows that from a financial standpoint, earning a bachelor's degree is usually a sound investment, according to the PEW Research Center. A subsidiary of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the center is a nonpartisan "fact tank" that informs the public about the issues and trends shaping the world.

Yet the debt that comes with a degree also can result in remorse. Only 51% of young adults with at least a bachelor’s degree and student loan debt say that the lifetime benefits of their degree outweigh the costs, according to another PEW report

But the benefits of a degree may go beyond finances.

Some 62% of college graduates with two- or four-year degrees think their education was useful for helping them grow personally and intellectually, according to the PEW report. Additionally, the report found that 47% of people with a postgraduate or professional degree think the main purpose of college should be personal and intellectual growth.

The statistics can be confusing for students in Montana considering a degree, where a worker shortage has opened up a number of entry-level jobs for high school graduates and certificate holders.

“There are just a lot more jobs available at lower wage levels than higher wage levels,” said Barbara Wagner, chief economist for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. “For example, if you're a bank, you probably need five tellers, but you only need one loan officer.”

The worker shortage is expected to grow over the next 10 years in Montana, and as the cost of college increases, the state labor department is working with the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to ensure that workforce training is aligned with the state’s economic needs.

A new report by the two agencies found that college graduates working in Montana earn wages above entry-level pay within one year of graduation.

However, those with higher levels of education face lower retention. According to the report, only 67% of bachelor degree holders earned income in Montana a year after graduation, compared to about 84% of those with an associate degree.

That’s likely because those with higher education levels tend to pursue high-wage jobs, which Montana lacks in volume, according to the report. In addition to the shortage of high-paying jobs, Montana’s high-wage jobs tend to pay less than high-wage jobs in other states.

“There’s a joke about B.A., that it really stands for barista because we have so many kids that come out with a bachelor’s degree in some liberal arts, and they’re bartenders and baristas and they have a bunch of student loans,” said Jan Clinard, the Pathways coordinator at Helena College.

Clinard helps students explore and select career paths so they enroll in classes they know will count toward their degree — and don’t waste time or money. Clinard said that many one- and two-year degree programs, such as auto mechanics, aviation and diesel, yield high-paying jobs.

In Montana, the returns on a bachelor’s degree compared to an associate degree vary by program. Bachelor's degree holders earn significantly higher wages in information technology, construction engineering technology, health information technology, and education, making twice the amount those with associate degrees make within five years of graduation, according to the report by the labor department and Commissioner's Office.

On the other hand, health, intervention and treatment, public safety, and engineering technology programs have lower wage outcomes for bachelor’s degree earners compared to those with an associate degree after five years.

Clinard and other Montana educators say they feel the state is shifting from focusing on students attending four-year schools to focus more on work readiness. They also note generational differences.

“Generation Y and Z learned everything they know from the baby boomers,” Clinard said. “They saw their baby boomer parents go through some pretty hard times financially. The economy goes down and maybe they lost their jobs ... So they start asking why. ‘Why do we do it this way?’”

With more students considering alternate routes to post-secondary education, Wagner said she does feel the state is considering workforce development more than it did in the past and realizing that “college doesn’t solve everything.”

“Education matters, but what level of education is something that also has to be considered,” she said. “Worker education can come in many, many, many different forms. It can come in a two-year degree, it can come as an apprenticeship, it can come as on-the-job training.”

Wagner said it's important to note that regardless of the route a student chooses, those with post-secondary education earn more than those without in nearly every single economic metric.

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