• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Stackability Beyond the Bachelor’s

A frustration with earnings data.


September 18, 2018

I’ve had issues with reports from Third Way in the past, so I approached the latest one, by Douglas Webber, warily. It’s about the lifetime economic returns of a bachelor’s degree. It’s relatively thoughtful, and it wins points from me for noting that the real issue with student debt isn’t the amount of debt that students carry, but whether they complete the degree or not.  (That’s why the sizes of outstanding balances are _inversely_ correlated with repayment rates. Someone who dropped out after a semester or two is much less likely to repay loans than someone who graduated, even if the graduate borrowed more.) But a key omission jumped off the screen:

“For data availability reasons, I only examine the returns to a Bachelor’s degree for individuals who did not attend graduate school.”

Hmm. I don’t know about the availability of the data -- I’ll defer to experts on that -- but I’d bet good money that the average salary among those who went on to, say, medical school or business school would boost the overall numbers. Leaving them out distorts the picture.

The omission points to a frustration I’ve had for years with data about earnings and degrees. Degrees can stack.

In the community college world, we speak the language of “stackable credentials” all the time.  It usually refers to certificates that can count towards an associate’s degree. For example, we include ServSafe certification in the Culinary degree. Fields like nursing (LPN to RN), IT, and Automotive Tech lend themselves to stacking. The primary benefit of stacking is that a student can get a foot-in-the-door credential -- and therefore start earning money -- on the way to the degree.  For many students, as Webber’s Temple University colleague Sara Goldrick-Rab reminds us, that’s a necessity. Stackability can also offer working adults with field experience a head start, which saves time and money, and can be motivating.

But I seldom hear the word used for the four-year degree and above, even though it applies at least as well there.  An associate degree can lead to a bachelor’s, which can lead to a master’s, a doctorate, an M.D., a J.D., or all manner of other things.  (Yes, I know, MD’s and even JD’s are technically doctorates, but I’m deferring to common usage here.) Excluding the folks who go on to higher -- and often more lucrative -- degrees skews the sample.  

This may sound like a quibble, but it isn’t.  Nearly half of the bachelor’s degree grads in the US have significant numbers of community college credits in their transcripts.  That represents a major economic contribution for which community colleges get little or no credit.

An associate degree that feeds into a bachelor’s probably has a better return on investment than a traditional bachelor’s, since the upfront cost is lower. On the average, I’d bet that the average earnings of that group would also be higher than those who just stopped at the associate’s level. Leaving them out of the analysis is misleading.

Webber’s piece argues for better data, and on that, I wholeheartedly agree.  The politics of getting that data are daunting, but the usefulness of it (more accurately, because the usefulness of it) is clear.  We can’t give credit where credit is due if we forget that degrees can stack.



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