It’s commonly accepted that earning a four-year college degree goes a long way to increase a person’s lifetime earning prospects.

But a growing body of research shows that students who graduate with two-year degrees are having an easier time finding jobs and are earning more money immediately after graduation.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell spearheaded one study that shows a steady trend where graduates with associate degrees out-earned their bachelor’s degree counterparts by roughly $3,000 — $35,544 to $32,742 — 18 months after graduation.

Other research has shown that students with bachelor’s degrees generally close the salary gap within five years and make up the entire difference in wages earned after 12 years.

Purcell’s 2011 Louisiana Employment Outcome Report further shows that 72.5 percent of two-year graduates were employed 18 months after graduation compared to 59.5 percent of students who’d earned bachelor’s degrees.

Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May said the country, and Louisiana in particular, needs to break out of the old mind-set that a four-year degree is the only sure route to a well-paying career.

“When we say that, we’re really talking about 20 percent of the population,” May said. “So by definition, we’re saying that 80 percent of people are a failure. That’s really the wrong message to send.”

May said the biggest driver of associate degree salaries outpacing bachelor’s degree salaries is technology. Between 2009 and 2010, May said, 75,000 people in Louisiana slid into poverty.

Many of those people lost their jobs because they didn’t have the required training or skill to keep that job.

He said more than half of the Louisiana employers looking for people to fill engineering technician jobs have trouble finding employees with those particular skills.

“At the same time, people want jobs, so we have to find a way to match them together,” May said. “This is why two-year salaries are outpacing four-year salaries. It’s a pretty simple case of supply and demand. We have a shortage in the skilled areas.”

Another factor to consider is mobility, he said. People with advanced degrees are more likely to seek jobs out of state, while those who haven’t gone as far in school are more likely to stay close to home, he said.

Engineering firms typically need up to four technicians for every engineer they hire, May continued. Those businesses have no trouble recruiting engineers from out of state, but they run into problems getting technicians to relocate.

“So we have a demand for technicians, and people going into process technology; and nursing; and respiratory therapy; and physical therapy; and instrumentation,” May said. “Those careers are in demand and so you’re going to see them command higher salaries.”

May said the Louisiana Community and Technical College System has adapted in the last five years by shutting down roughly 500 programs that don’t lead to some of the most in-demand jobs. At the same time, the system has added 200 new programs employers have asked for including training for hospitality-related programs and in digital media, he said.

Barry Erwin, president of the education lobbying group, Council for A Better Louisiana, said the key for the state is to have the right balance of four-year and two-year degrees.

“There are lots of available good jobs that only require a two-year degree, and with the recession people with four-year degrees are having to look around some more,” he said. “But one type of degree is not more important than the other, particularly in our state. We need to increase educational attainment at all levels.”

Purcell said colleges and universities have to align programs offered with the needs of the state.

He also argued for balance among two-year and four-year degrees. He noted that nurses with two-year degrees initially earn the same salary as nurses with bachelor’s degrees, but the nurse with the advance degree is the one who generally gets promoted to a nurse advisor.

“Secondary education is necessary in the modern economy,” Purcell said. “Over time, more education equals more choices and the opportunity to earn more money.”