Who Benefits Most From A Community College Education
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Who Benefits Most from a Community College Education?

Who should go to community college?

Community colleges draw a heterogenous mix of students. In these halls you can find traditional college students, returning students, international students, and curious community members taking up new hobbies and mastering new technologies.

Still, we know that some people in particular benefit from attending community colleges. Because of this, clear and consistent messaging about the benefits of community college, particularly as a path to economic stability, should be a marketing cornerstone for community colleges.

What the economic recovery means for community colleges

Inside Higher Ed reports that for every one percent change, up or down, that community colleges can expect a corresponding rise or fall in enrollment. This isn’t surprising since poor job markets often send adults back to school to retrain for more lucrative positions.

In addition, as the economy improves, students who already have part-time jobs are likely to be offered more hours, derailing their educational efforts. The strength of the economy has a profound impact on enrollment.

The unemployment numbers don’t show the whole picture

However, even as the economy booms, people interested in increasing enrollment at community colleges should take a critical look at the numbers. The country is reaching record lows for unemployment, but there are some other more worrying statistics.

For instance, millennials are still in a worse financial position that the boomer generation was at the same age. They earn less, are less likely to own a home, and more likely to carry large amounts of student debt. All this suggests that community colleges could market their institutions to working adults in search of more secure employment, especially those without college degrees.

What are the economic benefits of attending community college?

In a 2011 article Clive R. Belfield and Thomas Bailey review the existing literature on the economic and other benefits of attending community college. They conclude there is strong evidence that having an associate degree increases average earnings compared to just finishing high school.

The percentage difference in annual earnings after completing an associate degree across education categories is 13% for males and 22% for females, a significant gain. It’s clear that for students who have no intention of pursuing a four-year degree, community college offers a reliable avenue for career advancement.

What about students who don’t finish their degree?

Belfield and Bailey also report that taking credits or spending years studying at community college, even without completing any degree, corresponds with increased earnings. The average earnings gain is 9% for males and 10% for females, and one study even showed earnings gains after a single semester’s worth of credits.

This suggests that there is generally some economic benefit to attending community college in general, although completing a credential will have a more dramatic impact on earnings.

The earnings impact of vocational certificates

A favorite theme of politicians in both parties lately, including Presidents Obama and Trump, has been the importance of vocational training programs. It’s indisputable that the quality of the program the students attend matters.

However, the limited evidence available from two studies showed significant earnings gains for graduates with vocational certificates, between 7% and 24% (Grubb; Marcotte et al.). This is certainly an encouraging result. Again, community college offers the best path for obtaining such a certificate.

Which group has the best financial outcome?

The data in the more than twenty studies that Belfield and Bailey reviewed show that women benefited the most economically from a community college education. The average income of a community college attendee was substantially higher than other women with only a high school education.

Age also played a role. Women under 35 saw more of an earnings bump than older women. Young women improved their earnings by a percentage of 11% to 18%, compared to the 6% to 15% gain women over 35 enjoyed.

The invisible advantages to attending a community college

Although there is not yet data on this, it is possible that as they move into higher paying jobs community college graduates also enjoy access to other job benefits, like health insurance, paid vacation, and retirement options.

There’s are also less tangible benefits attendant on more secure employment, like general well-being and quality of life. And a more economically secure home is likely to have a generational impact, improving the educational outcomes for children of parents who have moved beyond a high school education.

What about traditional college students starting at community college?

Community colleges also appeal to students who intend to go on to four-year universities after obtaining some credits at a community college. There are not many studies of how this impacts overall educational outcomes or earning potential, although there is some debate about whether this has positive or negative effects on students diverted from 4-year intuitions.

It is possible that some students may be better off attending a 4-year college initially. However, for many students there are manifold advantages to beginning at a community college. Community colleges often have small class sizes and manageable tuition rates. They offer a chance for students to test their college aptitude and clarify their decisions. All of this makes starting at a community college a smart option.

Who benefits from community college?

The data available certainly suggests that in particular young women who do not intend to enroll in a 4-year university benefit substantially by attending community college and completing a degree. In addition to this, completing any amount of community college has a positive effect on aggregate earnings across the board, with both men and women earning more than those with only a high school education.

There are also some possible benefits to students unready for 4-year colleges who choose to begin their higher education at community colleges, although these have not yet been statistically evaluated. Emphasizing these very real benefits will give community colleges a competitive edge in marketing their institutions, even as the economy improves.


Belfield, C., & Bailey, T. (2011) The Benefits of Attending Community College: A Review of the Evidence. Community College Review, (1). 46-68

Grubb, W. N. (1997). The returns to education in the sub-baccalaureate labor market, 1984-1990. Economics of Education Review, 16, 231-245

Marcotte, D. E., Bailey, T., Borkoski, C., & Kienzl, G. S. (2005). The returns of a community college education: Evidence from the National Education Longitudinal Survey. Educational

Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 27, 157-175.