Is community college worth it? New data analysis shows sharp gains in employment, earnings for community college completers

Data analysis suggests attending community college increases employment rates; certificate or degree sparks both employment and earnings jump

June 10, 2021

Boston – Analysis of data from a statewide system that links data across high schools, postsecondary institutions, and employers by MassINC and The Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University finds community college completion leads to substantial gains in employment and earnings - an increase of as much as $14,100 annually in salary in some fields.

pathways to economic mobility cover Download the report

The report, Pathways to Economic Mobility: Identifying the Labor Market Value of Community College in Massachusetts, looked at the impact of community college enrollment for men and women who enrolled within five years of their high school graduation, with some of the most impressive gains made by those who enrolled in community college immediately after high school and completed their certificate or associate degree. The research found that among students who enroll right away, women who complete an associate degree are 18 percentage points more likely to be employed than terminal high school graduates. For men with an associate degree, the employment boost is about 12 percentage points. Students who obtain credit-bearing certificates experienced similar employment returns.

Equally notable, women who earn a credit-based community college certificate or degree earn between 15 and 25 percent more than terminal high school graduates, and men who enroll right away and eventually complete a credit-bearing certificate or an associate degree receive a 10 to 15 percent earnings boost. Depending on the field, these salary increases could be anywhere from roughly $5,500 to as much as $9,000 per year. 

Employment change chart

“We often talk of the payoff of higher education in terms of lifetime earnings, but these data show the impact is often more immediate - underscoring the importance of supporting community college access and completion–particularly after the disruption caused by the pandemic,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino of the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University, co-author of the study.

For students who delayed their entry into community college by up to five years but completed their degree or certificate, findings were also generally positive. Employment gains for this group were comparable to those for immediate community college enrollees, even when controlling for demographic characteristics and academic preparation. However, while women appeared to benefit somewhat by just attending community college, men who attended but did not complete a certificate or degree saw no real wage benefit - possibly because men with a terminal high school degree may be more likely than women to have access to jobs in high-paying industries such as construction.

“The policy implications of this report are clear - we need to strengthen our policies that support equity in access and accelerate completion at community colleges,” said Keith Mahoney, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at the Boston Foundation. “That equity, though, must reach beyond the classroom to include issues like affordability, access to coaching and supports, as well as internships and career explorations that give students a stronger base from which to enter the job market.”

The employment and earnings boost for community college graduates varied across fields of study, with especially strong earnings differentials for certificate or degree holders in health among women, and in STEM fields for men.

Labor market wages by field of study

Lastly, the research examined whether the “bang for the buck,” the returns from a community college certificate, varied by the race and/or gender of the student. Indeed, the research found that employment and earnings benefits of obtaining an associate degree for under-represented students of color and low-income students were largely equivalent to, or even exceed, those benefits experienced by their White and higher income peers. Black and Hispanic students who earned their associate degree received a significantly higher benefit than their white and Asian peers, as well as higher earnings - but all groups benefited greatly from degree or certificate completion.

“The data clearly highlight the measurable impact that community college completion can have for the futures of all students,” said Ben Forman, Research Director at MassINC, who co-authored the report. “But there are definite groups – when one looks at fields of study or race and gender, where the power of a degree or certificate can put students on a life-changing trajectory.”

“These data demonstrate remarkable outcomes for thousands of people who attend and complete community college, but they also demonstrate the urgency we should feel to close the opportunity gap that keeps students of color from finishing community college at the same rates as their white peers,” added Antoniya Marinova, Assistant Director of Education to Career programs at the Boston Foundation.  

Marinova noted data in the report that while Black and Latino students are roughly twice as likely to attend community college, they are much less likely to complete a degree or certificate - a pattern especially visible among male students. “Our history of work with Success Boston has shown both that devastating gap and some ways in which we can close it - providing more equitable rewards in an economy that places sharp emphasis on earning a degree.”