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March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

The Community College Option

Community colleges offer benefits that students may not recognize.

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Twenty-five years ago, The Forgotten Half report showed that half of U.S. youth were struggling in the passage to adulthood. The 1988 report by the William T. Grant Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship advocated creating job-training programs for these youth.
In recent years, however, college for all has become standard national policy. As a result, the passage to adulthood is now largely structured around higher education. Today, over 90 percent of high school graduates attend college within eight years of graduating. This includes 75 percent of students in the bottom third in terms of test scores and socioeconomic status (Rosenbaum, Ahearn, Becker, & Rosenbaum, 2015). Yet because so many students fail to earn a college credential, youth continue to struggle in the transition to adulthood.
The push toward college for all has opened college doors to a broader range of students. This expansion of college availability is important because many mid- and high-paying jobs that were once available to high school graduates, now require additional education. Jobs in manufacturing, computer networking, medical assisting, or office work require skills beyond what students typically learn in high school.
But college—and career success after college—doesn't have to mean a bachelor's degree. Community college credentials, such as associate's degrees and one-year certificates, can lead to a wide range of fulfilling careers that offer more rewards and benefits than students may realize. These options mean that students poorly served by traditional four-year college programs can still obtain credentials that lead to desirable jobs.
Using data from the Educational Longitudinal Survey (ELS), a nationally representative survey that followed the high school class of 2004 eight years after graduation, we analyzed the education and labor market outcomes of on-time high school graduates. Our research offers four lessons about the role of community colleges in the push to college for all.

1. Community colleges provide a path to future success.

According to the Community College Research Center (n.d.), 44 percent of low-income students and 38 percent of first-generation college students choose community colleges. Our analyses of ELS data indicate that test scores have an even stronger relationship with college choice—61 percent of high school graduates with low test scores choose community colleges.
Unfortunately, only 20 percent of students who begin in community college complete bachelor's degrees. A greater number, 33 percent, complete certificates or associate's degrees, and the proportion who do so is even larger (37 percent) for students with low academic achievement. This new generation of college students, who would have likely been included in the "forgotten half" in 1988, often attend community colleges, and they mostly find success with community college credentials, not bachelor's degrees.
Community college credentials confer labor market advantages over a high school diploma. Graduates who get certificates or associate's degrees earn 15–25 percent more than high school graduates (Belfield & Bailey, 2011). Additionally, our research shows that community college credentials are associated with 50–100 percent higher odds of employment than high school diplomas.
Although earnings and employment are important, our research finds that young working adults (ages 25–32) at all education levels value nonmonetary rewards as much as or more than they do earnings. In particular, they desire jobs that offer autonomy, status, career preparation, variety, and learning, and they seek to avoid jobs that are dangerous, disagreeable, or dead ends with no career future. Policies that evaluate colleges on the basis of graduates' pay may unintentionally prioritize high-paying jobs that lack these rewards (Rosenbaum, 2012, 2015).
As with earnings, we've found that young adults who complete certificates and associate's degrees report higher levels of nonmonetary job rewards than do high school graduates. (Rosenbaum & Rosenbaum, 2013). In some cases, there is little discernible difference among degrees: Certificate, associate's degree, and bachelor's degree graduates report similar levels of challenges, learning opportunities, and purpose in their current jobs.
Many people aspire to careers that make a difference, and our research indicates that community college graduates perceive their jobs as useful for society. Boggs (2011) notes that "50 percent of the nation's registered nurses, over 80 percent of the first responders, and most of the nation's technological workers are prepared in community colleges" (p. 12). Nursing assistants and first responders save lives; computer network technicians keep workplaces functioning; and airplane, auto, and elevator technicians keep us safe. Community colleges provide pathways into these vital, high-demand occupations.
Moreover, community college credentials can lead to further degrees. Twenty-five percent of certificate graduates later go on to earn associate's and bachelor's degrees, and 17 percent of bachelor's degree graduates have previously earned an associate's degree. More would likely do so if colleges promoted "credential stacking," a pathway in which students earn professional or academic credentials as they move toward a higher degree (Carnevale, Jayasundera, & Hanson, 2012).
Unfortunately, despite the greater accessibility of certificates and associate's degrees, almost half (46 percent) of community college students get no credentials (Rosenbaum, Ahearn, Becker, & Rosenbaum, 2015). Our research indicates that students who attend college but get no credential or degree receive none of the employment or earnings benefits and few of the nonmonetary job rewards that community college graduates receive. These students have similar high school grades, study habits, test scores, and family income as community college graduates. If they tried to complete certificates or associate's degrees, many would likely succeed. However, these students were more likely than certificate completers to have bachelor's degree expectations. We suspect that these students don't realize the advantages of community college credentials.

2. Community colleges have different academic standards.

Many students with modest academic achievement feel pressure to pursue a bachelor's degree because of dire warnings about low prospects for high school graduates. Yet when educators promote bachelor's degrees, students far below those standards think school has nothing for them, and they tune out.
Despite reformers' claims that "college-level" academic skills are needed in college, students can attain credentials from community colleges and get good jobs without meeting the academic standards required for a bachelor's degree. We've found that although low test scores and low-income backgrounds may hinder some students from completing bachelor's degrees, these factors don't have the same effect on completion of community college credentials. We've also found that low-achieving and low-income students who attain bachelor's degrees have lower earnings than other bachelor's degree graduates; but if they get certificates or associate's degrees, low-achieving and low-income students have similar earnings as other graduates with those credentials. Our findings support other studies that conclude that community college credentials don't require "college-level academic skills." Tenth grade skills may be sufficient for some programs (Rosenbaum, Cepa, & Rosenbaum, 2013; Tucker, 2013).
Nonetheless, certificates and associate's degrees do require students to work hard. Community college faculty report that their programs prepare students for life beyond college by giving them job-specific skills, social skills, work habits, problem-solving skills, and a sense of professional standards (Rosenbaum, Cepa, & Rosenbaum, 2013). Students need to experience these nonacademic standards to achieve success in the workforce.

3. Alignment helps, but one standard is not enough.

Preparing high school graduates for success in college, including community college, can help more youth find satisfying, well-paid employment. The poor alignment that occurs when high school standards do not match college standards is a major contributor to the low college readiness of high school graduates.
Most entering community college students are required to take a placement test, which determines whether they meet the college's math and English standards. Nationwide, over 60 percent of students do not meet these standards and are directed into noncredit remedial programs. Administering the college-placement test in high school might help students more effectively prepare for college-level standards (Rosenbaum, 2001).
In 2012, Florida implemented a testing alignment reform mandating that 11th grade students must take the statewide college-placement test. If they do not test as college-ready, they must take a course in 12th grade to improve their academic skills. But community colleges have different academic standards from bachelor's programs, which raises questions about this reform's focus on one standard for college readiness.
To examine this one-standard system, we surveyed teachers of Florida's 12th grade college-readiness course. The teachers said that Florida's reform worked well for motivated and college-bound students but not for students with little interest in college or with low academic achievement, far below the cut-off score (Rosenbaum, Ahearn, Lansing, Mokher, & Jacobson, 2015). Moreover, most of the teachers in our sample believed that more than half of their students would not be able to complete bachelor's-level work. They wanted an expanded definition of alignment that could serve all their students.
In other words, these teachers felt that the single standard was too narrow, and they wanted alternative options. They were eager for college preparation to include a path to careers that didn't require college-level academic skills. Even teachers who also taught honors and advanced placement courses wanted alternatives for their disengaged and lower-achieving students. Although 30 percent of the teachers we surveyed believed college readiness should be a higher priority in their schools, 50 percent wanted to increase the priority of career readiness.
Unfortunately, these teachers did not seem to realize that community colleges already offer such career-preparation programs, including some certificates that do not require passing the college-placement exam. If alignment reforms acknowledged variation in academic requirements for different programs, students might feel less discouraged when they do not test as "college-ready."
Aligning high school and college standards can help students prepare for college-level coursework. This alignment doesn't have to require legislation. We found one community college that worked with local high schools to align standards, while avoiding some of the problems associated with Florida's state mandate. The provost at Harper College in Illinois organized meetings of math faculty at Harper and at the local high schools. The college faculty outlined their expectations, and the joint group worked out ways the high schools could assess students' readiness and help them meet the necessary standards.
Instead of blaming students for academic deficiencies, K–12 and community college systems can synchronize standards so that students know exactly what skills they need to meet their career goals. If we want to serve all students, it's important to alert them to the differing levels of achievement various credentials require.

4. College scorecards can provide information on college outcomes.

Florida has created a college-choice website that provides information about career outcomes of graduates from various programs in each of the state's community colleges. This website transforms our general statistical findings into specific guidance about how students can choose local options in the era of college for all.
Florida's website identifies four career outcomes for each occupational program, one year after program completion—what percentage of graduates are employed, their average earnings, and what percentage continued their education. Figure 1 shows sample statewide outcomes of various career programs. Comparable tables can inform students about their local community college's outcomes.

Figure 1. Career Outcomes for Florida Community College Programs

The Community College Option-table




Associate's Degree ProgramsEmergency Medical Services90%$57,420.0045%
Criminal Justice Technology73%$39,756.0065%
Network Service Tech68%$39,408.0042%
Early Childhood Education66%$26,936.0042%
Career Certificate ProgramsPump Operator92%$56,196.0045%
Practical Nursing85%$35,496.0025%
Applied Welding Tech52%$34,924.0019%
Surgical Tech81%$31,784.0015%
Commercial Vehicle Driving45%$31,244.003%
Nursing Assistant (Articulated)56%$24,256.0031%
College Credit* Certificate ProgramsCisco CCNA68%$45,600.0052%
Accounting Technology Specialist62%$33,568.0063%
Business Management69%$32,752.0064%
Information Technology Support Specialist60%$30,248.0063%
Office Specialist60%$26,476.0053%
*College credit certificate programs may have higher academic requirements, especially in the health field.
Source: These data were drawn from the Florida Department of Education's data portal at http://smart-college-choices.com, which shows program outcomes one year after completion.

According to Florida's scorecard, the graduates of many programs are employed at rates of over 80 percent and earn more than $32,000 per year. Moreover, these certificates do not lead to dead-end jobs. In some programs, many graduates continue their education. Community college credentials are a good start toward higher degrees, and this website helps students make informed choices about which college to attend, what program to take, and what occupation they want to pursue. Other states could create similar websites or tools to give students a clear picture of college options and outcomes.

Know the Options

When people think of college, they tend to think of bachelor's degree programs, which take longer, cost more, and pose more formidable obstacles than community college programs. Credentials that offer high rates of employment, strong earnings, and a wide range of rewarding jobs are often ignored. Many students who are unprepared to pursue a bachelor's degree can earn community college credentials that have good payoffs without taking remedial courses.
Students who are interested in a bachelor's degree, but not quite prepared to pursue it, can complete a short-duration credential with a high likelihood of success and payoff before continuing to a higher degree. Some students already do this, but many don't know about this option. At the very least, students should be well-informed about the array of post-secondary options.
American society now provides college access to 90 percent of high school graduates, an impressive accomplishment. Yet students continue to face serious barriers that block their opportunities to benefit from college. Community colleges offer programs that reduce financial and academic barriers and confer workforce benefits to a wider range of students. If students see these opportunities, they can make choices that better serve their goals.

Belfield, C., & Bailey, T. (2011). The benefits of attending community college. Community College Review, 39(1), 46–68.

Boggs, G. R. (2011). Community colleges in the spotlight and under the microscope. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2011(156), 3–22.

Carnevale, A., Jayasundera, T., & Hanson, A. (2012). Five ways that pay along the way to the BA. Washington, DC: Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

Community College Research Center. (n.d.). Community college FAQ. Retrieved from http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html

Rosenbaum, J. (2012). Degrees of health disparities: Health status disparities between young adults with high school diplomas, sub-baccalaureate degrees, and baccalaureate degrees. Health Services and Outcomes Research Methodology, 12(2–3), 156–168.

Rosenbaum, J. (2015). Do sub-BA credentials lead to good jobs? Gains from community college degrees. Working Paper, SUNY, Downstate.

Rosenbaum, J. E. (2001). Beyond college for all. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Rosenbaum, J., Ahearn, C., Lansing, J., Mokher, C., & Jacobson, L. (2015). Improving alignment? Florida's college and career readiness initiative. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University.

Rosenbaum, J., Ahearn, C., Becker, K., & Rosenbaum, J. (2015). The new forgotten half and research directions to support them (Research Report, Program on Inequality). New York: W. T. Grant Foundation.

Rosenbaum, J., Cepa, K., Rosenbaum, J. (2013). Beyond the one-size-fits-all college degree. Contexts, 12(1), 49–52.

Rosenbaum, J. E., & Rosenbaum, J. (2013). Beyond BA blinders: Lessons from occupational colleges and certificate programs for nontraditional students. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 27(2), 153–172.

Tucker, M. (2013). What does it really mean to be college and work ready? Washington, DC: National Center on Education and Economy.

William T. Grant Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship. (1988). The forgotten half: Pathways to success for America's youth and young families. Washington, DC: Author.

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