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Dialing into a WCC Degree

Yesterday, I wrote about an intensive data analysis of more than 17,000 degree and certificate programs offered at community colleges around the country. The data are useful in determining the value of a WCC degree.

How does a WCC degree perform?

FREOPP parses the data (which it drew from institutional data reported to the department of Education) in a few ways. In the simplest calculation, the data examine four WCC certificates and twenty associate degree programs. (Remember that WCC issues far more certificates than actual degrees. Also, the analysis doesn’t include data on all programs.) The certificates include three health-related programs and a criminal justice program. The degree programs include a range of mostly occupational studies along with a couple of academic/transfer degrees.

The occupational degrees have a higher earning potential than transfer programs do. First, with an occupational degree, a graduate can begin earning immediately. Second, once a student begins earning, s/he can more quickly repay any student loan debt incurred while in school.

According to the analysis, about 30% of all associate degrees have a negative ROI. That means 3 out of 10 degree-earners would have been financially better off had they not earned a community college degree. Nursing, mechanic and repair-related technologies, and allied health degrees produce the best overall ROI. Liberal arts and other non-occupational degree programs produce the worst ROI. Between 55%-57% of these programs have negative lifetime ROI.

These programs have little to no income capacity because they’re not skill-based, and because graduates who intend to transfer often don’t. These graduates do not have marketable skills and often don’t complete a more advanced degree that would improve their earning potential.

In contrast, 35% of all certificate programs have a negative ROI. The certificates most likely to generate positive returns include vehicle maintenance and other maintenance occupations, metal-working and transportation or construction related studies. Medical assisting, other health-related certificates, and cosmetology account are most likely to produce a negative ROI for 25% or more of those who complete these programs.

Adjustments for completion rates

One of the biggest concerns about community college is their low overall completion rates. When the data account for the low completion rates, the picture changes. Among associate degree programs, 42% have a negative ROI. Registered nursing programs still have a virtually 100% positive ROI. Mechanic and repair-related degrees have a 90% positive ROI. Computer science and engineering have a 75% positive ROI.

After that, things get a little messy. Business and management programs have a nearly 50% negative ROI. Security and social service degree programs have a 50% negative ROI. Liberal arts degree programs have an eye-popping 81% negative ROI. That means 8 out of 10 liberal arts graduates were better off not attending a community college.

That has significant meaning for WCC. When WCC does manage to issue the increasingly rare associate degree, most often it is in liberal arts. It also means that WCC’s herculean effort to shift its focus from occupational education to academic transfer programs generates a huge net loss to the community. This loss occurs because most “transfer students” never actually transfer to a four-year university.

The impact of community investment on a WCC degree

Because community colleges rely heavily on a public subsidy, it is impossible NOT to account for this in ROI. Considering the public subsidy, registered nursing and mechanic/repair-related programs still produce mostly positive ROI. All other fields of study record negative ROIs of between 31% and 87%. That’s 31% negative ROI for computer science and engineering related fields; 59% negative ROI for business and management occupations; 64% negative ROI for security and social service occupations. 87% negative ROI for liberal arts.

So, of the four certificate programs in the analysis, all had positive ROI when accounting for completion rates and public subsidy. Nine of the 20 degree programs had a negative ROI when similarly adjusted. The ROI ranged from -$10,000 (Business/Management) to -$96,000 (Human development/family studies and related).

Step 1 is to eliminate degree programs that lead to low-wage occupations.

Step 2 is vastly improving the academic advising and career resources available to students. Helping students make well-informed, economically realistic decisions is as important as helping them avoid bad ones.

Encouraging enrollment and completion in occupational degree programs is one of the best ways to help students maximize their educational investment. It also offers the best ROI for the community. Helping students who intend to transfer achieve that goal can help avoid a potentially bad outcome.

Unfortunately, the WCC degree data demonstrate that not everyone who goes to WCC reaps economic benefits. Rather than perpetually recycling a marginally-truthful marketing slogan, maybe the administration should create some more economically viable WCC degree programs.

Photo Credit: Pictures of Money, via Flickr