Community College Students Seeing Higher Wages Even Without Graduating, Study Reveals

Posted By Eliana Osborn on April 27, 2016 at 9:54 am
Community College Students Seeing Higher Wages Even Without Graduating, Study Reveals

Student and institutional success are most often measured by graduation rate—how many enrollees make it through with a degree within six years. For two-year or community colleges, the timeline is three years. One of the only areas that acknowledges a mid-level of some college is tied to earnings reports. Now, California community colleges have hard data on students who leave without graduating and there’s positive news.

‘Skills builders’ is the name being used to describe this subset of students: those who come to college for specific, job-related learning. They are those with less than a year of education, leaving without a degree or certificate. You may not think taking just one or two classes makes a difference but these students are showing increased wages after their brief time in community college.

Skills builders had a median wage gain of more than 13%, equating to earning $4,300 more each year. That’s a real difference in the bank accounts of workers at the lower end of the economic spectrum. For the 113 California community colleges involved, that equates to nearly $500 million for 2013-14.

Another finding from the data is that these non-graduate skill-focused students are more often found in certain fields: child development, information technology, justice, and fire science. These fields correspond specifically with careers where advancement doesn’t require earning a degree. Skills builders are typically older students who have already achieved some sort of certification, taking classes while working full-time.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, writes, “The work on skills builders … is forcing a pause and reset in how we think about college dropouts by revealing that many students have figured out how to effectively engage the postsecondary system at low cost with high returns.”

Nontraditional students today are less accepting of a specific path through education, looking for flexibility and applicability to their lives. Skills builders are using community college classes not, perhaps, how they have been intended, but in a way that makes sense for them personally.

The 2014 report, Where Value Meets Values: The Economic Impact of Community Colleges, states “America’s community colleges play a key role in helping students increase their employability and achieve their individual potential.” The report estimates community colleges create more than $800 billion in student productivity, equivalent to 15.5 million jobs.

To assess community colleges more effectively, more than graduation rates must be considered. Whether that means tracking goals at enrollment or other means of differentiation, better understanding student aims will inform the future of school planning and growth.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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