FORTUNE – In the aftermath of the Great Recession, thousands of students have learned the bitter lesson that the college degrees they paid for do not guarantee a steady job. In response, many have opted for grad school to give their status, pay, and job security a bump.
Then there are those who seem to be taking a step backwards. It may seem counter-intuitive but some graduates are choosing to pursue community college associate degrees, after their bachelor’s.
“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that this is on the rise as a phenomenon, ” says Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The National Post Secondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) estimates that during the 2007-2008 academic year, 8% of entering community college students had already completed their bachelor’s degrees. This data was collected before the surge in enrollment at community colleges in recent years, says Norma Kent, senior vice president at the American Association of Community Colleges.
Some of the returning students are recent graduates who have found that their sociology or philosophy major has not been enough to find gainful employment. They are now training for careers as nurses, IT specialists, or medical technicians. Radiation therapists and registered nurses with associate’s degrees earn median salaries of $74, 200 and $63, 800 respectively, according to a 2009 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Many of these students have graduated fairly recently and the job market didn’t pan out the way they expected, says Felix Matos Rodriguez, the president of Hostos Community College in the Bronx. “Some say their initial choice of major was not the right one. For some folks that were laid off, it was a wake-up call.”
Baby Boomers are also among those returning for associate degrees to improve their marketability in their current careers, or to retrain for a new one after getting laid off.
The benefits of a two-year degree
Associate degrees often take two years or less to complete, cost considerably less than public or private graduate programs, and offer greater flexibility for those who work full-time. In 2010-2011, the average public two-year college tuition was $2, 713, compared to $7, 605 at public four-year institutions, according to a 2011 report by the College Board.
Over the past three years, Matos Rodriguez says that each semester, between 35 and 60 college graduates have enrolled at Hostos to earn associate’s degrees, when previously there had been virtually none.
Matos Rodriguez believes that the economy has fueled this trend, but also credits the Obama Administration’s role in promoting and investing in community college programs. In September, the Department of Labor announced the second $500 million grant to community colleges as part of a four-year, $2 billion job training initiative. Since the recession, community colleges have seen a spike in overall enrollment.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 849, 000 associate’s degrees were awarded during the 2009-2010 academic year, a 50.4% increase from 10 years earlier. Associate’s degrees in health and related fields saw a 105% jump during that same period.