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Earnings gap for community college degrees raises questions

In numerous blogs, I have written about the minimal earnings gap between high school graduates and community college graduates. Although there is significant variation among individual graduates – based on their studies – overall, the average community college graduate can expect to earn as little as a few thousand dollars more than someone with only a high school diploma.

At the same time, the earnings gap between a bachelor’s degree and a high school diploma has more than doubled. That makes it exceedingly difficult for someone to justify attending a community college. Why should people spend 2-4 years (or more) earning an associate degree, when they can double their incomes by earning a bachelor’s degree? I realize that assumes a person goes to college to improve their earning potential, but it’s a fair assumption. (There aren’t too many other reasons to go to college.)

As a group, community colleges have failed to elevate the economic value of their degree programs above the baseline – a high school diploma. That not only raises “return-on-investment” questions among prospective students, but also among the state legislators who sign off on state funding for public two-year schools.

The legislative response to date has been what may turn out to be an extremely dangerous appropriation model: performance-based funding. It’s dangerous because community colleges are not typically known for their performance in objective terms like enrollment, retention, persistence, and graduation rates, and the earning potential among their alumni ten years after first enrollment.

Make no mistake about it, these are existential questions for community colleges. If prospective students don’t see the value in a community college, and a growing number of state legislatures aren’t willing to fund community colleges without proof of performance, how long will community colleges continue to exist?

Performance based funding will address earnings gap

A community college that can’t significantly outperform a secondary school on key outcomes like alumni earnings should raise some questions. It should raise a lot of questions, like: “What are we doing here?” Or, “Why are we investing so much money in a system that doesn’t provide significant economic benefit?” Or even, “Has the community college ever succeeded in its mission, and if so, when did things go wrong?”

The fact that anyone raises questions about the value of a community college is problematic. It means community colleges are either not fulfilling their mission period, or they are performing so poorly that their value is indistinguishable from a standard secondary education.

In either case, accountability returns to the board members who have either been elected or appointed to oversee the performance of these institutions. A community college Board Room is not a country club. Trustees have a duty of care to fulfill to those who either elected or appointed them. The measurably inferior performance of community colleges attests to the failure of these officials to fulfill their oversight roles and to demand accountability from those who administer these institutions.

Photo Credit: Melinda Young Stuart , via Flickr