With college costs soaring and the job market for new grads sputtering, one trend is worth watching: more and more states are authorizing community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees. Already, more than 20 states — now including California, which enrolls one out of every four of the nation's community college students — have authorized community colleges to grant these degrees.
Turf will be an issue as this trend continues, but there is a division of labor between community colleges and universities that makes sense. Community colleges can and should be encouraged to develop bachelor’s-degree programs in career and technical areas and to avoid the liberal arts degrees that are integral to the mission and education delivered by universities. In any case, turf isn't the bottom line in this coming shift. The bottom line is the bottom line: Do the technical and career-oriented degrees in which community colleges specialize pay off in the labor market?
Most community colleges have a good fix on the local labor market and can create relatively low-cost programs to fill local needs. When they follow this course with career-oriented training, there is plenty of empirical evidence that community colleges can produce graduates who earn enough to put them in the middle class and who indeed often earn more than bachelor’s graduates.
This evidence can be found in studies by College Measures, which have repeatedly demonstrated that graduates with technical associate degrees, on average, outearn graduates with bachelor’s degrees (see here or the most recent report on Tennessee). In some specialties, the gap can exceed $10,000.
Most current data on the experience of community college graduates in the labor market covers the wages of students earning associate degrees, not bachelor’s degrees. But data from Florida suggest that students earning bachelor’s degrees from community colleges also fare well.
Using data from 2012, the median wage of bachelor’s graduates from Florida’s universities one year after graduation was $33,400, far lower than the median wage ($41,000) of associate graduates of the state's community colleges.
One of the most common complaints about comparing early-career earnings is that even if graduates with associate degrees earn more than bachelor’s graduates early on, the rate at which bachelor’s graduates’ earnings increase is higher -- so that the advantage quickly disappears. There is truth to this, but five years after graduation, associate-degree holders have median earnings that are still higher than bachelor’s graduates ($47,000 versus $44,000). What’s more, the median household income in Florida is $47,309 and the median per capita income is $26,451. In short, the wages of associate-degree holders put them squarely in the middle class.
The lower wages of bachelor’s graduates result in part from the fact that universities offer a full gamut of bachelor’s degrees, including many liberal arts programs whose graduates don't earn much, especially immediately after graduation. The narrowing gap over time most likely reflects the earnings increases of the many university graduates with degrees in these low-wage fields, as they finally get to launch adult lives.
While data from Florida -- where community colleges have been granting bachelor’s degrees for years -- show associate graduates holding their own against bachelor’s graduates, the data also show that community college bachelor’s degrees are well received in the labor market.
Because Florida’s community colleges only offer degrees in a limited number of fields, it’s hard to directly compare the wages earned by graduates with bachelor’s degrees from community colleges to those of university graduates in a large number of fields. Where we can make these comparisons, the data reflect well on bachelor’s degrees earned at community colleges.
Looking at three large programs of study where comparisons are possible, data show that community college bachelor’s graduates with degrees in business administration one year after graduation had median earnings of $39,000. That’s $3,000 more than the median earnings of university graduates in the same field. Community college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in registered nursing earned $61,000, which outpaced that of university nursing graduates by $10,000. And community college bachelor’s graduates with elementary education and teaching degrees out earned university graduates by several hundred dollars: $37,500 to $37,000.
Few programs available at both community colleges and universities enroll enough students to make reporting long-term wage data possible, but elementary education and teaching is an exception. Five years after completion, community college graduates in these disciplines earned $40,200, compared to university graduates at $39,400. All these data are available here.
In short, bachelor’s graduates from community colleges are doing as well as their peers with university degrees, at least in Florida. And community college graduates usually paid far less for their education.
The United States has had a long and mostly unhappy history with career and technical education. Yet, the best programs in community colleges build on the best aspects of this training: figuring out what local labor markets need and training students at relatively low cost for those jobs. As long as they focus on this part of their mission, we should applaud the expansion of these institutions’ authority from granting certificates and associate degrees to include bachelor’s degrees.
Meanwhile, community colleges should leave philosophy, history and dance to universities committed to the liberal arts. Instead, community colleges should focus on training people for opportunities to enter the labor market with good skills that put them in the middle class. With their higher wages, these community college graduates can order their Starbucks coffees from baristas with fancy philosophy degrees.
Mark Schneider is vice president for the American Institutes for Research and a former commissioner of education statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.
As a student at a private university I had a sneaking suspicion that the magic between the pages of our great books had nothing to do with the cost of tuition, but had much to do with the generous heart of the instructor -- no matter the setting. I think I was right.
I spent the fall of 2013 enrolled at a community college in Texas trying to discover what you really get when you pay the most in the world of higher education -- and what you get when you pay the least.
By day, I was a junior English major at Southern Methodist University, one of the nation’s most expensive private universities. By night, I was a commuter student in an American literature class at Richland College, a nearby community college. An English class at my university cost over $5,100, while at Richland it was only $153. While at SMU, after a few false starts, the liberal arts had come alive through accessible professors and vibrant class discussions, something near the fantasy of "Dead Poets Society" but with textbooks too expensive to be able to justify tearing out any pages. As the semesters passed, I began to wonder about the extent to which this experience was tied to the amount I paid for it -- what do the liberal arts look like on a budget? What does a literature class feel like at our most accessible institutions? I went to find out.
The most important thing I had done at SMU was to go to my English 2312 professor’s office on a Friday afternoon and tell the truth. The truth was not that I was unprepared for college, but that I simply didn’t like college. It’s a different world up there, my mother had warned. I must have misplaced the map. And I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at SMU. I wondered how I would I ever begin to come to terms with this whole college thing -- what it was for and how it could ever be worth the cost. These are hard questions to ask during the best years of your life, which is what they called college in the movies I had watched. But I couldn’t recall a scene where the freshman pulled doubts like rabbits from a hat and turned them into answers for his soul.
The teacher was there, door open and waiting, just as the syllabus had promised under the heading of “Office Hours.” My purpose was to discuss my second paper -- a postmortem. Tim Cassedy, a young assistant professor recently arrived from New York, observed that it seemed my high school had prepared me well for college writing -- an innocuous compliment to most students. But for me it was an invitation. The proper response is to say "thank you" and indicate how happy you are to be at college now instead of that dreadfully confining high school that taught you how to form simple paragraphs. I hesitated for a second, half-inclined just to agree, give the correct answer, and continue with the conversation. But another part of me, the honest part, wanted badly to tell the truth.
I began to unpack my situation, my confusion, my questions, my longing for something more from my college experience than just velvet green lawns and affluent classmates. And Professor Cassedy listened. He didn’t dismiss or diagnose. He didn’t tell me that everything would be O.K. I was surprised to find that he seemed just as interested as I was in finding the answers to my questions and wishful thinkings. He understood. I got better. And I became an English major.
That moment saved college for me. If I had decided not to tell the truth that afternoon, I could have continued to accrue credits and eventually a degree, but I wouldn’t have been to college. Something significant would have been missed and valuable time wasted. I went back to his office another time and again I was reassured and challenged. I went back again and again and the door was always open. All of my big and important realizations were tested there; made sharper through discussion, questioning and that ancient practice most simply known as “teaching.”
Three semesters later I was at Richland, looking again for a way to understand college. My search led me to a green armchair. You nearly trip over it when you walk into Crockett Hall 292, but its importance there has more to do with symbolism than functionality. Near the halfway point of the semester, I decided to go to the office of my English 2326 professor, Mary Northcut, and try to tell her the truth about why I was taking her class and the answers I was seeking. I say “try to” because I didn’t know whether it was even possible to experience this part of the professor-student relationship in the way I had at SMU. There were office hours listed on the syllabus, but how could my professor, who was teaching six classes that semester, possibly have the time or energy to engage meaningfully with her students one-on-one? I was mistaken in questioning her availability and commitment to her students, and along the way I found that I was wrong about many other things as well. Important, life-changing conversations are happening at community colleges too, and I was lucky to have found myself in the middle of one that afternoon.
Professor Northcut has been teaching at Richland College for nearly 40 years. After completing a doctorate at Texas Christian University, she immediately devoted herself to teaching outside the spotlight but inside a social mission. She first taught at Bishop College, a historically black college that later closed its doors in 1988, and then at El Centro College before transferring across the Dallas County Community College District to Richland. At some point during her decades-long stay she must have acquired this green padded chair, the arm of which served as my seat during our hourlong talk. She was a fascinating conversation partner, possessing the tendency toward eccentricity that marks college professors everywhere. Between exchanges on the nature and purpose of higher education we discussed her love for horses, East Asian cinema and collecting Ancient Grecian coins. (In fact, it seemed I had walked into her office at a crucial moment in an eBay bidding war over a coin bearing the image of Phillip II of Macedon.)
But what deeply moved me, largely because I had foolishly believed that it couldn’t possibly be true, was this important truth: Professor Northcut wants to be at Richland and she is there on purpose. She is convinced that community colleges serve a vital purpose in aiding the best and brightest students who lack the resources to attend four-year schools right out of high school, or perhaps got sidetracked along the way. By her description, Richland exists explicitly to help those students find their way to universities and brighter futures. She is not at Richland because she never found a better job, or to collect a few extra paychecks before retirement. And she certainly does not see her students as the caricatures they often become in our higher-education debates -- representatives of broken systems; too unprepared to make it at a “real college.”
She knows them to be just as capable of academic success as any other students. And she has an astounding track record of helping her students take the next step. Professor Northcut is full of stories of her students, many of whom she describes as being like her own children, going on to schools like TCU, SMU and even Columbia University. To her, Richland College is a serious place with serious goals, and despite decades of changes and challenges, she is no less committed to its mission now than she was as a newly minted Ph.D. joining the ranks of socially conscious community college faculties in the 1970s. She told me she plans to keep teaching full-time for the foreseeable future and to retire later, reducing her teaching load to only “one or two classes” per semester. Two classes per semester is the ordinary teaching load for professors at SMU and most other elite colleges.
As I sat listening to all this on the arm of the green chair, worn threadbare by the pants of many students before me, I was overwhelmed with an awareness that the ancient art of teaching had found a home in this small office also. And the stakes in this office were much higher, the problems more pressing and the margin for error more perilously thin than perhaps in most of the offices at SMU. Futures were forged here not from an abundance of advantages but out of a struggle for a fighting chance. I don’t consider it an exaggeration to say that lives were saved in that office, in addition to the moments of intellectual growth we expect from any college experience. And most important for me, I left with that same feeling I had found my freshman year in Professor Cassedy’s office -- that the world is full of complexity and college is here to help you recognize and make sense of it. The best professors show you how. The best professors are everywhere.
I can no longer assume that office hours and compelling professors are the exclusive property of private universities. But of course, I cannot guarantee that they exist at every single college either. I can only claim this: I am a product of office hours and great teachers and truth-telling, and I would not pay for a class, be the cost $150 or $5,000, that doesn’t include the chance to find an open door and welcoming ear whenever the questions become too large to face alone. This is the difference between a degree and an education.
Preston Hutcherson is an undergraduate English major at Southern Methodist University.