Study finds community colleges lag in job preparation

The income gap between four-year graduates age 25-37 has grown in recent decades. (Image: Pew Research Center

The public gives community colleges lower marks for job preparation than four-year colleges, a Pew Research Center study finds.

Only 12 percent of the public say a two-year degree from a community college “prepares someone very well for a well-paying job in today’s economy,” and 46 percent say it prepares a person somewhat well.

When asked how well a four-year degree from a college or university prepares someone for a job, 16 percent said very well, and 51 percent said somewhat well.

That’s one finding from a report released this week titled “The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education.” The report mostly focuses on the gap between what Democrats and Republicans think about college campuses today.

“Despite the public’s increasingly negative views about higher education and its role in society,” the report states, “most Americans say a college education is important – if not essential – in helping a young person succeed in the world today.”

The purpose of college

The report notes that a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of adults say a college education is essential, and an additional 60 percent say it is important but not essential.

However, far higher shares say a good work ethic (89 percent), the ability to get along with people (85 percent) and work skills learned on the job (75 percent) are essential for a young person to succeed.

When it comes to their own experiences with higher education, the report notes that an earlier Pew survey found the vast majority of college graduates (from both two- and four-year institutions) say college helped them grow personally and intellectually. A large majority found a college education was useful or very useful in opening doors to job opportunities, and 84 percent say a college education helped them develop specific skills and knowledge that could be used in the workplace.

The income gap among college-educated and non-college-educated people has grown significantly over the past several decades, the report notes.

In 1990, the median annual earnings for a full-time worker ages 25-37 with a bachelor’s degree or higher was $53,600. At the time, this compared with $40,200 for a worker with some college experience but no bachelor’s degree and $33,600 for a worker with no college experience.

In 2018, the median annual earnings for a full-time worker ages 25-37 was $56,000 for a worker with a bachelor’s degree or more education, $36,000 for someone with some college education and $31,300 for a high school graduate.

While fewer than half of today’s young adults are enrolled in a two-year or four-year college, the share has risen steadily over the past several decades. And the economic advantages college graduates have over those without a degree are clear and growing.

“Even so, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction – even suspicion – among the public about the role colleges play in society, the way admissions decisions are made and the extent to which free speech is constrained on college campuses,” the report states. “And these views are increasingly linked to partisanship.”

Only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country these days, the report states. About four-in-ten (38 percent) say they are having a negative impact – up from 26 percent in 2012.

A partisan gap

The increase in negative views has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican. From 2015 to 2019, the share saying colleges have a negative effect on the country went from 37 percent to 59 percent among this group. Over that same period, the views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive.

A majority of Republicans (58 percent) say the main purpose of college should be to teach specific skills and knowledge that can be used in the workplace, while only 28 percent say the main purpose should be to help an individual grow personally and intellectually.

Democrats are more evenly divided on this: 43 percent say the main purpose of college should be developing skills and knowledge, while roughly the same share (42 percent) point to personal and intellectual growth.

A study in early 2019 found 87 percent of Democrats – but only 44 percent of Republicans – said colleges and universities are open to a wide range of opinions and viewpoints.

A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found a majority of Americans (61 percent) believe the higher education system in the U.S. is generally going in wrong direction.

Republicans and people who lean Republican are much more likely to think higher education is going in the wrong direction (73 percent) than Democrats or people leaning Democratic (52 percent).

Democrats are more likely to cite higher tuition costs as the major reason for their concern. Republicans are much more likely to cite professors bringing their political and social views into the classroom, too much stress on protecting students from views they find offensive, and the failure to colleges to focus on workplace skills.

“Higher education faces a host of challenges in the future – controlling costs amid increased fiscal pressures, ensuring that graduates are prepared for the jobs of the future, adapting to changing technology and responding to the country’s changing demographics,” the report states. “Ideological battles waged over the climate and culture on college campuses may make addressing these broader issues more difficult.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.