The financial value of a college degree

Source: "Does It Pay to Complete Community College--and How Much?" Research Brief March 2017, Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment

Associate degrees consistently and significantly increase the earnings of workers — even during major economic downturns — but certificates are less consistent in boosting earnings, according to a paper that culls research from eight states.

For women, the boost from an associate degree is about $7,200 a year, or about 26 percent more than the earnings of women who start college but do not earn a degree. For men, the earnings premium is about $4,600, an increase of 18 percent over the earnings of men with some college but no credential, according to the paper from the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE), a research center funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education and led by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University.

For certificate holders, the average earnings gain is about $2,960 a year for women and $2,120 a year for men. But for both associate degrees and certificates, the field of study makes a big difference in eventual earnings, with technical and vocational degrees having more value on their own than liberal arts degrees designed to lead to transfer to a four-year college, according to the report. Longer term certificates appear to be more valuable than short-term certificates, but the earnings boost of certificates may fade out over time.

“Associate degrees result in a substantial and lasting gain in average income that easily exceeds tuition, fees and lost income,” Thomas Bailey, director of CAPSEE and CCRC, said in a press release. “That makes community college a good investment on average for students who complete a degree.”

Providing context

The CAPSEE research helps fill the knowledge gap about job outcomes for students who earn two-year degrees and certificates and those who accumulate some college credits. For families considering whether college is worth the time and expense given increasing tuition and student debt, the research provides a more detailed understanding of the value of college awards for the 40 percent of postsecondary students enrolled at community colleges.

Though the averages show clear benefits to attaining a community college credential, it is important for students to be aware of the differences in earnings by field, the report noted. Associate degrees in technical and occupational fields provide better earnings than associate of arts degrees that prepare students to transfer to a four-year college. The value in those degrees comes with the bachelor’s degree.

For both associate degrees and certificates, health degrees yield the highest earnings gains in most states. Business and technical degrees also lead to higher earnings.

In addition to addressing a lack of research on employment outcomes for community college students, the research provides more accurate estimates of returns by controlling for student characteristics. The studies in Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, California, Ohio, Virginia, Washington and Arkansas are based on large, detailed datasets that combine transcript information with quarterly earnings records for students enrolling in college for the first time.

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