Why you should care
Because if universities want to keep raising tuition, students should know they have other (read: cheaper) options.
When it comes to higher education, we’ve all heard the talking point: More people than ever are pursuing four-year degrees. At the same time, college has never been more expensive. Students pay the skyrocketing tuition costs because they don’t have many other choices if they want to be competitive in the workforce. Now, researchers are suggesting there may be another legitimate option: community college.
Analyzing data from more than 20,000 students who attended Washington state’s 34 community and technical colleges, researchers from Columbia University and the Career Ladders Project in Oakland, California, found that over a seven-year span, long-term certificates, which take more than a year to complete, and associate’s degrees lead to better employment odds and higher wages — sometimes even more so than bachelor’s degrees.
… salaries above $50,000 …
Until now, there has been scarce research on community colleges, leading to the assumption that they’re less valuable than they really are, says Mina Dadgar, one of the study’s lead authors and director of research at the Career Ladders Project. It’s in part because many associate’s degrees, particularly in humanities, are meant only to get students in the door at four-year colleges, so they aren’t useful by standard measures. But it turns out health care, technology and skilled labor are just a few of the sectors that students with community college credentials can make their way into and immediately start making salaries above $50,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
“This is an affordable investment,” Dadgar says. “For many students, community colleges are a way to earn a family-supporting wage, but we don’t really think of them that way.”
Students have to be careful, though. Not all short-term certificates, which take less than a year to pursue, are beneficial on their own. The study, published by the American Educational Research Association, found that on the whole these types of fast-turnaround credentials don’t lead to significant economic return — unless they’re combined with deliberate foresight about what comes next. “The challenge is many credentials are not well thought through,” says Dr. James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education. “They’re dead ends.”
Both Stone, who had no affiliation with the study, and Dadgar stressed two main points: First, policymakers need to start making it so that certificates can build off one another. And second, high school counselors — who, they say, mainly promote the four-year track — need to use this data to present community college as a legit option for students. “We still have this belief that the four-year college is the only pathway,” Stone says. “This is the perfect time to promote these opportunities.”