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The Wage Benefits of a Community College Education

By Heather Boerner

New research shows that students who earn long-term certificates and associate degrees see an increase in wages.

Here’s an argument you can take to your next meeting with state funding officials: According to new research from Columbia University and the Career Ladders Project, female students who obtain long-term certificates increase their wages by 15 percent, compared with women who attend college but don’t earn a credential or degree. Women who earn associate degrees see wages rise by 6.3 percent.

“It’s not just employment or more hours worked—the study actually showed wage gains reflecting real skills,” says Mina Dadgar, director of research at the Career Ladders Project in Oakland, Calif., and coauthor of the study. “This makes the argument even stronger that community colleges are a good investment.”

Data details

The study, published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, examined employment, wage and education data from students who attended any of Washington state’s 34 community and technical colleges during the 2001-2002 academic year. Over a seven-year follow-up period, researchers found that students who committed to long-term certificates (defined in the study as those taking more than a year to complete) and associate degrees saw their wages rise in every field of study. Students who earned short-term degrees (those taking less than a year to complete) saw meager or no wage gains.

Among the other results from the study:

  • Students who earned long-term certificates tended to use them in high-return fields, such as nursing or other science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) jobs. That contributes to the higher average wages for students who earned long-term certificates compared to students who earned associate degrees. Associate degrees in humanities, social sciences, information science, communication, and design yielded smaller wage gains than STEM-related long-term certificates.
  • Associate degrees and long-term certificates in health and engineering yielded the highest returns. For instance, an associate degree in nursing resulted in a 37.7 percent increase in wages.
  • Students who obtained an associate degree started with wages that are among the lowest of any students studied, second only to transfer students. However, students who earned associate degrees saw the highest wage increases of all students.
  • The wage effects were highly gender stratified. Women saw the greatest gains in income, but that may be because they started with lower incomes.
  • While wage gains were most pronounced for long-term certificates, men saw high wage gains with specific short-term certificates. For instance, men who earned degrees in protective services saw their wages rise by 22 percent.

How to use the data

What should college leaders take away from this research? First and foremost, Dadgar says that state funding of community colleges should reflect value. “What community college leaders tell us is that states say, ‘New programs can’t be very expensive or long term,’” she says. “What we found is that that may not be the best investment. Some of these more long-term certificates and associate degrees provide more value.”

The other lesson the data teaches us, says Dadgar, is the importance of making short-term certificates stackable, which then creates longer-term credentials that lead to higher wages.

“We want to have open doors and be accepting of students who may not have the luxury of thinking of a longer-term trajectory,” Dadgar says. But she suggests that community colleges counselors steer students toward longer-term credentials once they are in the door. “We know which of their credentials offer a high value. Now we need to use that to design pathways and in counseling.”

Watch this interview with Dadgar, and tell us in the Comments how you think this research can help your community college.

Heather Boerner

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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