Washington Watch: Many Pathways May be Taken Toward a Good Job

Washington Watch is written by AACC’s government relations office.

According to the Chinese proverb ascribed to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  For some, the journey is linear, while others take detours along the way. Some take long strides, while others make short hops. From a higher education perspective, the traditional journey for   a recent high school graduate began with the pursuit of a baccalaureate degree to ultimately achieve a good job. Over the years, who attends college has changed considerably. Today, non-traditional students make up most college enrollees pursuing a myriad of credentials. What’s more, a slew of research has demonstrated that different pathways to postsecondary education have resulted in good outcomes for many. 

A recent U.S. Department of Education report on the outcomes of sub-baccalaureate students adds to this research repository. The report uses data from the 2012-14 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, tracking first-time students who enrolled in certificate and associate degree programs in 2011-12 for three years and their subsequent employment outcomes. Previously demonstrated positive aspects to taking shorter programs, include a tendency to borrow less and to experience lower opportunity costs. 

Key Findings

The findings should be interpreted within the restrictive three-year timeframe for completion and near-term post education employment of this study and other parameters, including that they are confined to first-time students enrolled in their starting institution and program. 

  • Almost two thirds (64 percent) of the certificate students enrolled first in a for-profit institution; public 2-year institutions were the starting institution for more than 8 out of 10 associate degree students.
  • Female students were concentrated in health care programs, 57 percent of certificate programs and 28 percent associate degree. Such concentration did not exist for male students whose enrollment varied both in program credential and type. The most popular associate degree program was in general studies (19 percent), whereas 46 percent of male students were in one of these certificate programs – manufacturing, construction, repairs, and transportation – that were combined into one category in this report. 
  • Within three years, about half of certificate students (52 percent) earned a credential and an additional 11 percent remained enrolled.  In comparison, only 18 percent of associate degree students earned a credential and 40 percent remained enrolled. 
  • There was a $3,000 premium in the median annual salary of associate-degree completers over non-completers; virtually no gap in salary existed between certificate completers and non-completers. The earnings gap between male graduates of certificate and associate degree programs and their counterparts who did not complete the program ($2,000 and $4,000, respectively) was much higher than for female student completers versus non-completers ($1,800 and $1,500 for certificate and associate degree programs, respectively. 

Important Student Success Factors

Completion rates are particularly sensitive to enrollment intensity. The discrepancy in certificate and associate degree completion rates can be explained at least partially by the difference in enrollment intensity, with 61 percent of the certificate students always attending full-time compared to 43 percent of the associate degree students. The difference in the completion rates of public 2-year versus for-profit students can also be explained by the enrollment intensity of students, although this was not part of the analysis in the report. Most public 2-year students attend part-time, whereas the opposite is true for those attending for-profit institutions. For-profit institution students were more likely than their public 2-year counterparts to earn a certificate (58.2 percent vs. 35.4 percent) or an associate degree (33.5 percent vs. 15.6 percent).

Type of program at both the certificate and associate degree levels makes a difference in market returns, which explains the discrepancies between outcomes of male and female students. Female students, who were most likely to pursue a certificate or an associate degree in health care professions, in both cases, had lower earnings than graduates in other fields. Certificate graduates in healthcare had $2,000 higher annual earnings than their non-completer counterparts ($20,000 vs. $18,000). Interestingly, associate degree earners in healthcare had only an $800 premium over non-completers $20,000 compared to $19,200. And even more surprisingly, when they first entered the workforce, there was no difference in the annual earnings of certificate and associate degree graduates of healthcare programs. By contrast, male students were much more likely to enroll in the combined manufacturing, construction, repair and transportation programs, which had higher annual earnings than healthcare. Furthermore, there was a much higher premium to program completion. Certificate graduates of these programs earned $5,300 more than those who did not complete. At the associate degree level, the gap between completers and non-completers was even greater, $29,000 compared to $20,000, respectively. 

The analysis was descriptive rather than explanatory, so one cannot definitively say what the underlying reasons were for the discrepancies in outcomes, either completion rates or annual earnings. However, these findings were telling and do show that certain factors play a role in student success, including attendance intensity and choice of program. Therefore, effective advising and guidance in choosing a major and the necessary student support services and financial means to attend full time, as much as possible, are important to achieving student success.  Providing the student and institutional resources to access and success in postsecondary education are longstanding top priorities of community colleges. 

For more information, please contact Jolanta (J.J.) Juszkiewicz, Director of Policy Analysis, at jjuszkiewicz@aacc.nche.edu. 

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.