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Hard times hit employees who fail to earn a college degree

Taking some college courses isn’t enough these days.

You need that sheepskin in a post-recession world.

Looking at the two South Florida counties of Broward and Palm Beach, for example, workers who experienced the worst drop in earnings from 2008 to 2013 were those who attended college or earned a two-year associate’s degree but didn’t graduate with a bachelor’s degree, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey.

In Palm Beach County, their earnings dropped 10 percent from 2008, when the Great Recession hit, to 2013, when the recovery was supposedly well underway. It fell from $35,421 to $31,877.

In Broward County, those who took some college courses or got an associate degree saw a 7.25 percent dip in income during the same period, from $33,933 in 2008 to $31,474 in 2013.

In contrast, those with a high school diploma saw median earnings fall only 3.8 percent in Palm Beach County and 5.7 percent in Broward.

Meanwhile, college graduates’ pay increased 7.6 percent in Palm Beach County from 2008 to 2013 while it nudged down only 2.4 percent in Broward. A graduate with a bachelor’s degree earned $44,719 in Broward last year and $47,152 in Palm Beach County. College graduates took home about $14,000 more a year in the two counties than those who attended but hadn’t graduated from a four-year program.

Lesson: Your financial future may depend on sticking it out to get a degree, said economist Jorge Carrillo-Salazar, who directs the Center for Economic Research at Florida International University.

Even though the South Florida economy is on the upswing, employers can still be picky and demand applicants with college diplomas for jobs that once did not require bachelor’s degrees, he said.

“The economy is not generating enough jobs,” Carrillo-Salazar said.

In fact, the recession pushed many laid-off workers to return to college campuses to get the diploma they didn’t obtain earlier, said economist William B. Stronge, a Florida Atlantic University professor emeritus. Some changed to more in-demand degrees, he said.

“They recognized they needed more skills,” he said.

In many cases, bosses aren’t concerned about what job applicants studied in college – but whether they had the discipline to follow through and graduate, said Eugene Holzer, co-founder and managing partner of the job placement company Ascendo Resources. It’s a sign they’ll be steady employees, he said.

That’s why Florida Atlantic University senior Tara Wengert takes her hospitality management classes while she works part time at a Hampton Inn.

“I think it shows I am motivated,” she said.

Although she already has a job in her chosen field, Wengert said she wants a college degree to get her into management and to make more money.

“It’s called the sheepskin effect – when you graduate, your earnings jump a bit,” economist Stronge said.

Mildred Coyne, an associate vice president for Career & Technical Education at Broward College, found work at a bank after she dropped out of college. But after three years as a teller, Coyne decided she wanted to work in education. So she went back to college and earned a bachelor’s to become a counselor – and started earning about 20 percent more. That launched her into more advanced degrees – and better pay.

Today, Coyne helps Broward College students become focused on taking classes that would give them employable skills.