Community colleges

The good folks at Bridge Magazine published a guest commentary I wrote based on my commencement address at Alma College. (The Bridge column is here and the entire Alma speech here. The article was republished, to my pleasant surprise, by the Detroit Free Press here.)

Jim Jacobs, the terrific President of Macomb Community College, in an email to me and Carol Churchill, President, Mid Michigan Community College, in a comment to my Bridge column both took me to task for writing: So much for,“You would have been better off going to a community college!” (That sentence is in both the commentary and the speech.) In this post I want to deal with the rationale for that sentence.

First my Bridge commentary should have included the background that the column was an abridged version of my Alma commencement address. The comments about making the right choice was directed at those students who had just earned a four year degree. The evidence cited in both the column and speech makes clear that getting a four year degree from a liberal arts college like Alma was a better choice for their career than pursuing a two year degree or occupational certificate that so many of our high school graduates are being steered towards.

Second in the Bridge column I should have written: So much for “You would have been better off going to a community college and getting an associates degree or occupational certificate.” As both Jacobs and Churchill wrote some students do start at a community college and transfer to a four year university where they earn a bachelors degree. I’m sure some of the Alma graduates took that path.

At our high school initiative–Michigan Future Schools––we are working on a partnership with Schoolcraft College, the University of Michigan Dearborn and DEPSA to encourage DEPSA high school graduates who for either academic or financial reasons will not be able to attend a four year institution to enroll at Schoolcraft with the goal of earning the credits and GPA to transfer to UM/Dearborn.

So starting at a community college and transferring to a four year college is clearly one of the paths to earning a four year degree. That said the authors of Crossing the Finish Line––the definitive book on what matters to earning a four year degree––concluded: “… we find that students who began their studies at two-year colleges were much less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than were similar students who started at four-year institutions. As we shall see, this large effect is observed even for the least well-prepared students, who might be expected to benefit the most from starting at a two-year college.” (Emphasis added.)

The reasons are too complex to detail here. The basic explanation is that students have better outcomes when they enroll in more academically challenging instituitions. Although it seems counter intuitive, students who enroll in colleges for which they are over-matched (they barely qualify for admission) do better than if they enroll in colleges that should be easier but where they are under matched. This includes starting at a community college rather than a four year university.

(For those wanting to explore this specific topic further or more broadly learn about what predicts four year college success, Crossing the Finish Line is a must read. Its findings are taken from the most detailed data ever assembled on the topic.)

The basic case for my statement comes from the recent The Rising Cost of Not Going to College study by the Pew Research Center. As I covered in the column and speech the study found:

Today the unemployment rate for 25-32 year olds with a bachelors or more is 3.8 percent; for those with a two year degree or some college its 8.1 percent; and for those with a high school degree 12.2 percent. In terms of median annual earnings for full-time workers: those with a bachelors or more earn $45,500; two-year degree or some college $30,000; high school degree $28,000. No matter what you hear, the reality is Millennials with a four-year degree are doing substantially better than their peers without a four-year degree. 

The gap in median annual earnings for young, full-time workers has grown consistently for those with a four-year degree compared to those with a high school degree, from $7,500 in 1965 to $17,500 today. The gap between 25-32 with a four-year degree and those with some college or an associates degree has grown from $5,000 in 1965 to $15,500 today. 

In a terrific column on a new Economic Policy Institute study, New York Times The Upshot editor David Leonhardt writes:

… the new Economic Policy Institute numbers show that the benefits of college don’t go just to graduates of elite colleges, who typically go on to earn graduate degrees. The wage gap between people with only a bachelor’s degree and people without such a degree has also kept rising. Tellingly, though, the wage premium for people who have attended college without earning a bachelor’s degree — a group that includes community-college graduates — has not been rising. The big economic returns go to people with four-year degrees. (Emphasis added.)

For high school graduates who are interested in jobs and careers that can be obtained with a two year degree or occupational certificate clearly enrolling in a community college is a good choice that almost certainly will pay off long term. But the data are clear that high school students who want to earn a four year degree make the right choice when they resist the growing chorus that claims that they would be better off learning a trade at a community college or a technical training program.

Students choosing to attend and graduate from a four year university, including those focused on the liberal arts, are taking the most reliable path to a good paying career. And the case for that choice over a two year degree or occupational certificate is stronger today than in the past and is likely to be even stronger tomorrow than today.

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