Press "Enter" to skip to content

Community college enrollment won’t improve without focus on students

Recently, I read about an HVAC employer in Maine who is so desperate for tech workers that he recruits students out of high school. That’s going to be a problem for a community college. High school graduates are entering the workforce directly in growing numbers. They’re also receiving on-the-job training and starting salaries of between $15-$26 per hour as well.

The longer employers struggle to find employees, the more common this will become. Also, the $26/hour entry-level salary virtually guarantees that no community college will see those high school graduates. As a tradesperson working 40-50 hours per week can expect to earn between $55,000-$68,000 per year. That well exceeds the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ average starting salary of $46,125 for a community college graduate.

Among community colleges, the most recent focus has been on short-term training that puts a person in a job quickly, but this approach also short-changes the student. The average starting salary for a community college graduate in an educational program lasting less than 6-months was about $37,000. So, that means the short-term graduate takes a nearly 20% salary discount.

The problem with this steep discount is that it puts an uncomfortable equation in play. What are the salary differences between a two-year degree, a short program credential and a high school diploma? If the salaries are too close to each other, the decision to enroll in a community college becomes much, much harder to justify.

Community college degrees don’t offer significant benefits

Enrollment at community colleges, which is down around the country, will not recover until community college degrees offer an obvious economic advantage to the student. The unrelenting focus on short-term certificates and training programs has damaged the value of a community college degree. The return-on-investment of graduating from a community college versus entering the workforce directly from high school is now too slim to make a real difference.

Students should clearly understand that opting for a short-term educational program means taking a discounted starting salary. They should also understand that a low starting salary will mean lower lifetime earnings. Diminished earnings have less immediately obvious impacts on Social Security benefits and retirement savings, too.

Some won’t-be students have already done these calculations. They know that the potential increase in starting salary may not justify spending time and money at a community college. Just 60% of people who earned associate degrees between January 2020 and October 2020 were employed. A 2013 study conducted by the Federal Reserve of New York found that fewer than 3 out of 10 college graduates work in their field of study. These things call into question the practice of simplifying degree programs based on “what employers want.” If graduates have the precise skills and abilities that employers want, the employment rate among graduates and their starting salaries should both be much, much higher.

There must be an equitable balance between the needs of the student/employee and the needs of an employer. “Because that’s what employers want” should never be the primary justification for shortening a degree program or offering a certificate. The primary driver for any degree or certificate program should be “Because that’s what the job requires.” Always and only.

Photo Credit: , via Flickr