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Community colleges may not offer economic mobility

Recently, I read a brief that studied the impact of manufacturing certificates offered by the Connecticut State Community College System and Fresno Community College in Fresno, CA. The brief attempted to confirm that the programs provide economic mobility to its participants.

Researchers from Education Equity Solutions, a non-profit whose goal is to advance equity in higher education for minority students, studied 64 students enrolled in the programs. 94% of the program participants were non-White. Researchers chose to examine outcomes for students in a seven-month non-credit Maintenance Mechanic program at Fresno Community College. They also studied outcomes for students enrolled in a 2-semester credit-based Advanced Manufacturing Machine Technology program at CT State’s Asnuntuck campus, and two nine-month non-credit CNC Precision Machining programs at CT State’s Housatonic campus.

Unfortunately, the brief is short on actual data; however, the authors assure the reader that program alumni were able to access high-wage jobs with good working conditions and room for advancement. In fact, the authors indicated that they chose these programs because they typically resulted in employment at above-average wages and offered hands-on training.

Selecting a program specifically because it results in higher-than-average employment indicates a problem. The authors know that not every community college program produces higher-than-average wages. They’re forced to cherry-pick programs to examine the effect they’re looking for.

Unfortunately, when I checked the current wage and employment data for Bridgeport, CT and Fresno, CA against MIT’s living wage estimates, the assertion that program participants earned a living wage didn’t always jibe with current job openings and their anticipated salaries. Starting in 2023, California employers with more than 15 employees were required to post starting salary range data on job openings. Connecticut employers also must disclose salary data.

Economic mobility is a key enrollment driver

The published salary information reveals that employers may not offer living wages for open positions in the fields under study. Typically, the lowest end of the advertised salary range was below a living wage for that area. It’s unclear whether the selected certificate programs would support true economic mobility. They might, but that depends on where in the employer’s pay range the prospective employee lands.

Employers will argue that they offer more than salary in an employee compensation plan. The compensation plan may include healthcare, 401(k) options, vacations, sick time, etc. (Keep in mind that some of these benefits are required by law.) The only portion of the employee’s compensation plan that s/he can use at the grocery store is salary, and most benefits come at some cost to the employee. Benefits often reduce the employee’s cash compensation.

For community colleges, the lesson is that salary is important. These researchers carefully selected programs that result in a high wage. All programs at a community college should enable students to improve their economic mobility. The community college should scrutinize programs carefully and consistently to ensure that their high-wage programs still meet the criteria for that designation.

There is no question that until community colleges begin to curate their academic programs with a specific focus on post-completion wages their classrooms will not attract incoming students.

It’s not too much to ask that community college administrators and executives look out for what’s in the students’ best interests and what’s in the best economic interest of the community college district. However, we still don’t get that kind of oversight. It should not come as a surprise that would-be students have no interest in enrolling.

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