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Students enrolled in community college programs with higher numbers of students from underrepresented minority backgrounds earn less and have a harder time paying back their student loans after leaving college, according to a recent report.
The report from the Brookings Institution, a public policy research institute, also found, however, that other factors, especially the mix of academic programs offered by community colleges, better explain the variation in student outcomes.
“On balance, we find that demographics are not destiny for program-level outcomes in the community college sector,” the report says.
The authors of the report examined postcollege earnings and loan repayment data of community college students in certificate and associate degree programs at more than 1,200 institutions. They tried to determine aspects of the programs related to student performance in the labor market and which of those factors are within a community college’s control.
Ascertaining the influence of those factors may become a high priority for community colleges if the Biden administration restores an Obama-era policy known as the gainful-employment rule and requires community colleges to adhere to it. The rule held career training programs accountable for the level of student loan debt held by graduates of those programs relative to their discretionary incomes.
Lesley Turner, a co-author of the report and associate professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, noted that the last iteration of the gainful-employment rule included nondegree programs, such as certificate programs, at public institutions, and nearly all programs at for-profit colleges. She said it's an “open question” whether community college programs should be subject to a new gainful-employment rule.
There's increasing public appetite for college accountability measures, but community college programs are a “complicated” case because factors such as the strength of local labor markets and the kinds of students the colleges serve also play a role in postcollege outcomes, said co-author Cody Christensen, a doctoral student in the leadership, policy and organizations department at Vanderbilt.
“It’s really complicated in the case of community colleges, because we ask community colleges to do two things: we ask them to be open access and we ask them to sort of either train students for a job or train them to transfer to a four-year school,” he said. “And oftentimes those goals are in tension, because being open access means you have to serve whatever students show up at your door, and sometimes those students are a harder population just to serve in general.”
The report found that community college programs that enrolled more students of color had worse outcomes for earnings and loan repayment three years after those students left college than less diverse programs. A 10-percentage-point increase in the share of underrepresented minority students in a certificate program meant a typical student’s annual net earnings were $120 lower. That same increase in the share of minority students in associate degree programs corresponded to a typical student having $540 less in annual net earnings. Meanwhile, a 10-percentage-point increase in minority students in a community college program meant a 1.1 percentage point lower share of that cohort’s loan balance was repaid after three years.
“We know that there are reasons why students from different demographic groups may earn less than white students -- discrimination, different opportunities in the labor market -- and the last thing a system of incentives or penalties should do is punish schools and programs for serving these students,” Turner said.
However, the report also found that demographics weren’t the best explanation for the variation in student outcomes across programs. Outcomes differed widely based on field of study. Associate degrees in fields such as education and communications technology, for example, yielded significantly lower net earnings than skilled trades programs such as construction or an engineering degree. When researchers controlled for differences in fields of study, a higher share of Black and Latinx students in an associate degree program correlated with higher net earnings.
The report found that colleges that enroll more students from underrepresented backgrounds offer fewer programs in the fields that lead to higher postcollege earnings. At community colleges with the most underrepresented students, only 16 percent of programs are in fields of study with the highest net earnings, compared to almost a quarter of programs at community colleges with the fewest underrepresented students. The report argues there are plenty of levers community college leaders do control, such as adjusting program offerings, that appear connected to better student outcomes.
Lizette Navarette, vice chancellor of college finance and facilities planning for the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office, said the report shows “community colleges do have control over some very important factors that lead to economic success and economic mobility for students.” She believes California’s student-centered funding formula, enacted in 2018 but going into full effect in 2024, was built on a similar premise. It bases state funding to community college districts on a number of factors other than enrollment, including the number of former students earning a living wage.
“It’s important to have metrics that are aligned with your goals,” she said.
Christensen said a practical message the report gives community college leaders is that the mixture of programs “you offer really does matter, and if you have flexibility to add programs, or if there’s a demand to expand programs where earnings are higher, the student outcomes might be better off for it.”
More state funding would help community colleges invest in programs that yield higher-paying jobs, Turner added. She noted that programs in STEM fields, for example, can be more expensive for community colleges to offer because courses require specialized equipment.
Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, believes some community colleges have a dearth of programs with pathways to higher-paying careers -- and supports to steer students toward them.
“You really need to take a look at your programs and how you help or don’t help students get into a program that gets them a good job or at least a job in a field that they want,” he said. While colleges wrestle with some factors beyond their control, college leaders should “take a much closer look” at student outcomes, he said.