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.