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“How much do your graduates make?”

For the moment, let’s leave aside the motivations behind the question, and just try to address the question itself. Define “your graduates” and “make,” and we can start to answer the question.

That may sound evasive, but it’s a fundamental truth. And the fact that such a basic truth is completely elided in popular discussion tells you a lot.

I’ll give you an easy one. Sarah graduates from her local community college, and transfers to a nearby four-year college. She subsequently graduates from the four-year college and goes on to medical school. She spends a few years in residency, then gets a high-paying job as a physician.

At what point do we count her earnings? And who gets credit for them?

The standard measure is looking at starting salaries right out of college. But Sarah’s salary right out of community college, and even right out of her four-year school, was zero. We could include the zero, but it would be deeply misleading. Or we could exclude Sarah, but that would be misleading, too; if not for the start she got at the community college, she would not have been able to land her physician job. By excluding Sarah and others like her, we wind up with an artificially low figure for community college grads.  And in this political climate, that’s the kind of figure for which a college is punished.

The basic comprehensive community college produces two kinds of graduates: “transfer” and “workforce.” (Those of us on the ground know that the distinction isn’t nearly as clean as that, but for the sake of clarity, let’s leave that aside for the moment.) “Workforce” certificates and degrees are usually understood to be “terminal,” or self-contained. (The new trend is to make them “stackable,” to prevent stagnation, but we can leave that aside for now, too.) “Transfer” degrees are built to serve as the first two years of bachelor’s programs. Stereotypically, transfer degrees have been more popular among high-achieving students of traditional age, and workforce credentials have been more popular among adult students. Those aren’t absolutes, but they’ll do as shorthand.

In very broad terms -- and I’ll stipulate, again, that these are broad generalizations with lots of exceptions -- the most academically gifted students tend to cluster in the transfer programs. And in very broad terms -- again, with plenty of exceptions -- the higher-paying jobs in America tend to require bachelor’s degrees or more. The salary someone with an A.A.S. in electronic engineering technology does not compare to the salary she could get with a B.S. in electrical engineering. The former is employable, but not at the same level as the latter.  

If my generalizations are even close to correct, then community colleges are subject to a brutal and systematic bias when the question of graduates’ earnings comes up. The higher-achieving, higher-salary students are excluded from the count, since they show up as bachelor’s degree grads. (In BLS stats, someone who gets an A.A. on the way to a B.A. counts as a B.A. grad.)  The students who deliberately targeted lower-paying jobs -- often due to time pressure -- do show up, though. Then we get compared to the four-year colleges -- many of whose graduates started at community colleges -- unfavorably. This is madness.

The first thing we have to do is to recognize that “community college graduates” and “four-year college graduates” are overlapping groups. Many of the latter are also the former. (Many others may not have graduated from the cc, but they did accumulate credits there. Transfers after the freshman year are quite common.) If we only count the “highest” point of graduation, though, we miss significant contributions at lower levels. Policymakers and influential journalists tend to be from the economic class that shows up at Wake Forest at age 18 and graduates at age 22. But that’s not representative of most of American higher education.

Of course, once we recognize the role of transfer, then the entire distinction between “workforce” and “transfer” starts to break down. If you transfer as pre-med, and then go on to med school, was your college experience vocational or pure?  I’d say “yes.” Many occupations now require four-year degrees or higher, so what looks like an “academic” degree at this level is, in fact, the first portion of a workforce credential. And there’s nothing wrong with that.  I just wish our political discourse would recognize that the general education core is not just about fuzzy-headed academics in ivory towers reciting poetry. If you want a prosperous middle class -- a fine and worthy goal -- you have to recognize different routes to getting there.  

How much do our graduates earn?  How are you counting?

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