ERIC Identifier: ED467981
Publication Date: 2001-09-00
Author: Bryant, Alyssa N.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Community Colleges Los Angeles CA.
The Economic Outcomes of Community College Attendance. ERIC
One of the motives for seeking an education in the community college is to
increase earnings. Because greater income and improved job status are associated
with higher living standards, the community college can also act as a bridge to
enhanced social mobility. This digest discusses research on economic gains for
community college students and also explores whether a community college
education serves to minimize the wage gap between women and men and between
other advantaged and disadvantaged groups, bringing about greater equity for
Relative to high school graduates, those
who attain associate degrees or complete some college (at least 30 units) earn
more money (Grubb, 1999). Overall, high school graduates earned a mean salary of
$22,895 in 1997 compared to $26,235 for students with some college or an
associate degree; this represents almost a fifteen percent increase from one
level to the next (Phillippe & Patton, 2000). Grubb (1999) makes the
Clearly there are returns for students who complete associate degrees, though
the rate of return for certificate or credential completers is less clear
because the data are not always available.
The economic benefits of completing twelve credits or less at the community
college are insignificant.
Economic benefits may take a few years beyond program completion to materialize.
Overall, the data indicate that the community college offers economic
advancement over and above the high school diploma.
Although baccalaureate-level degrees are often touted as increasing earning
capacity beyond what can be earned with sub-baccalaureate degrees and
certificates, Carnevale (2000) reminds readers that these figures represent
average earnings. In actuality, almost 80 percent of employees with associate
degrees or some college earn as much as those with bachelor's degrees, while
one-third of the individuals who earn at least as much, in fact, earn more than
the average four-year graduate. Similarly, Lin and Vogt (1996) found that
associate degree and certificate holders earned more on average than their peers
who initially attended the community college and then transferred.
Associate degrees that lead directly to good jobs are distinguishable from
those that lead to transfer, as the latter tend to incorporate general education
requirements instead of specific job-related skills. According to Kienzl and
Woods (as cited in Phillippe & Patton, 1998), "hot programs" leading to jobs
paying $30,000 or more in 1997 included Digital Systems, Facilities
Technology/Maintenance, Dental Hygiene, and Manufacturing Process Technology.
Carnevale (2000) suggests that it is the occupation - not necessarily the
level of the degree - that determines salary. Grubb (1999) adds that high
returns are possible for sub-baccalaureate degree holders from
occupation-oriented programs assuming that they find jobs in fields related to
their degrees. He reports that less than 60 percent of men with associate
degrees find work in related fields, but that the same figure for women with
associate degrees is greater than 60 percent. The degree/job overlap is
especially pronounced for women who pursue business and the health fields.
Fifty-five percent of individuals with certificates enter related fields. In
general, the mechanisms in place at community colleges to link students with
degree-applicable jobs are available but often inadequate, suggests Grubb.
While some advocates of the community college
point to its democratizing impact, critics are wary of the "non-egalitarian
consequences" of community colleges. Brint and Karabel (as cited in Dougherty,
1994) argue that the community college serves to "divert" the masses away from
baccalaureate institutions, resulting in lower educational and economic
attainment for community college students. Still, we have seen that the
community college does improve earnings over and above what students would have
earned had they entered the labor force with a high school diploma. Furthermore,
Grubb (1999) indicates that the likelihood of entering higher-status jobs
increases with postsecondary education, including education at the community
college level. Thus, if community colleges bring economic benefits to students
as a whole, what can be said about the ability of these institutions to minimize
the earning gaps between women and men, underrepresented minorities and whites,
and low-income and non-low-income individuals?
Lin and Vogt (1996) point out that earnings comparisons can be made both
relatively and absolutely. Suppose a person earns $5,000 per year as a high
school graduate but $10,000 as an associate's degree holder. The absolute salary
increase is $5000. But, compared to his or her original salary, the person's
income increased by a relative rate of 100 percent.
According to Lin and Vogt (1996) and to Grubb (1999), the percent increase in
wages from the high school diploma level to the associate degree level is
greater for women than it is for men. Though the percent increase in wages is
greater for women than men, Lin's and Vogt's analysis showed that, in an
absolute sense, the wage gap between women and men widened. This may be partly
the result of a very low base wage for women in their study who had only high
school diplomas. This finding is inconsistent with more recent data reported by
the National Center for Education Statistics (1999) demonstrating that the
absolute earnings gap between men and women decreases as education increases. It
appears that relative to their earning potential as high school graduates, women
tend to benefit more from an associate degree than do men.
For all other group comparisons (black vs. white and low-income vs.
non-low-income), Lin and Vogt (1996) discovered that, while community college
degrees improved job status and earnings for everyone, the gaps between the
advantaged and disadvantaged groups increased both relatively and absolutely
with sub-baccalaureate education. Grubb (1999) reports conflicting findings:
Compared to the high school graduate level, returns for black students who
complete associate degrees are greater than for white students. At the same
time, he tempers his comments with the reminder that "the slightly higher
returns for blacks are undermined by [their] lower completion rates."
POLICIES AND PRACTICES TO IMPROVE EQUITY
equitable economic and social outcomes for students, several authors have
suggested the following (Jenkins & Fitzgerald, 1998; Coccia, 1997;
The community colleges should provide initial/continuing technical training for
educationally and economically disadvantaged students such that the students
receive technical training to improve their income and job status.
Community colleges should be offered incentives to serve the poor and other
Partnerships between employers and community colleges and between community
colleges and service agencies or other community-based organizations should be
created to serve students in need of greater social and economic mobility.
Classroom training should involve both academic and applied learning in order to
connect education with the workplace.
Disadvantaged students need to receive career guidance and mentoring. They
should also be provided with the opportunity to volunteer, as the experience of
helping another person can be satisfying and empowering.
While the improved economic outcomes for
attending community college are documented and substantial, there still exists a
gap in actual earnings between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. According to
some authors, this gap widens as a result of education beyond the high school
diploma. At the same time, on an individual level, students with two-year
degrees earn more than if they had entered the workforce with only a high school
diploma. As community college leaders increase their efforts to enroll and
support students from economically and educationally disadvantaged groups, more
of these students will have the opportunity to complete programs in the higher
paying fields, perhaps reducing the wage gap when these individuals complete
Carnevale, A.P. (2000). Community Colleges and
Career Qualifications. New Expeditions: Charting the Second Century of Community
Colleges, Issues Paper No. 11. (ED 439 743).
Coccia, E.A. (1997). Becoming an Expert: The College Experiences of
Welfare-To-Work Participants. Community College Review, 25 (3), pp. 3-19. (EJ
Dougherty, K.J. (1994). The Contradictory College: The Conflicting Origins,
Impacts, and Futures of the Community College. Albany, New York: State
University of New York Press.
Grubb, W.N. (1999). The Economic Benefits of Sub-Baccalaureate Education:
Results from the National Studies. CRCC Brief, Number 2. New York: Community
College Research Center, Columbia University. (ED 441 549).
Jenkins, D. and Fitzgerald, J. (1998). Community Colleges: Connecting the
Poor to Good Jobs. Policy Paper. Colorado: Education Commission of the States.
(ED 439 773).
Lin, Y. and Vogt, W.P. (1996). Occupational Outcomes for Students Earning
Two-Year College Degrees: Income, Status, and Equity. Journal of Higher
Education, 67 (4), pp. 446-475. (EJ 527 734).
National Center For Education Statistics (1999). The Condition of Education,
1999. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Research and
Phillippe, K.A. and Patton, M. (2000). National Profile of Community
Colleges: Trends and Statistics. 3rd Edition. Washington, D.C.: Community
College Press, American Association of Community Colleges. (ED 440 671).