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Community college enrollment competes against minimum wage

If you need any more confirmation that community college enrollment is linked closely to post-attendance salary, look no farther than the most recent report released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Virginia examined the short- and long-term impacts of minimum wage increases on community college enrollment. (Spoiler Alert!) When states increase the minimum wage, community college enrollment declines.

The researchers used enrollment data nationwide, along with state-level minimum wage data from 1986-2019. During that time, states registered more than 400 changes to their minimum wages. About 60% of those changes involved increases in the minimum wage of at least 6%. The research also points out that about half of all college students and 55% of all community college students work while attending school.

Some states, particularly in the South and West, did not change their minimum wage at all during the study period. (Yes, some states have not increased their minimum wages in more than three decades.) The researchers used those states as controls for their data analysis.

Increases to the minimum wage had no significant impact on enrollment at four-year institutions. At schools -both public and private – that issued predominantly associate degrees, enrollment declined for several years following an increase in the minimum wage in their states. There were no significant changes in enrollment for persons seeking short-term certificates.

Minimum wage increases were most likely to affect the enrollments of students who attended community college classes part-time. Unfortunately for community colleges, that’s about two out of every three students. The effect is not small, either. According to the researchers, community college enrollment drops by 6% in the year following a minimum wage increase and remains low throughout the study period, which was five years after a minimum wage increase.

Income determines community college enrollment

So, enrollment and completion are not the same things. The research was less clear on whether a decline in community college enrollment significantly changed the completion rate. Statistically, about seven out of ten community college students nationwide don’t ever complete a degree. The authors acknowledge that those who drop out of a community college program after a minimum wage increase may have been among that 70% of community college students. Those who persist long enough to complete a program of study may have graduated regardless of the status of their state’s minimum wage.

The data did show a small but significant decrease in associate degree completions for women when the minimum wage increased. Of course, women comprise the majority of community college students, so the data show they are most likely to drop out of school in pursuit of income.

The research boils down to this: when the minimum wage in a state increases, community college enrollment decreases, and fewer women complete two-year degrees.

What is the takeaway? Money talks. Community colleges that want to increase their enrollment should go through their program catalog and throw out any and all programs that do not result in living-wage salaries for graduates. Replace them with programs that open a pathway to higher post-graduation earnings. Yes, that will require actual work and investment in instruction, but it will increase enrollment.

Photo Credit: University of Hawai’i News , via Flickr