Community College Occupational Degrees: Are They Worth It?

By: Thomas Bailey & Clive Belfield | Conference paper | May 2011

While more than 60 percent of associate degrees and 98 percent of higher education certificates are classified as “career education,” the value of these programs has been repeatedly questioned. In this paper, the authors review and develop the evidence base on occupational higher education in the community college sector. They begin by describing the extent and recent growth of occupational credentials, including diplomas and certificates, both in the community college system and the for-profit sector. They then review the evidence on the labor market returns to occupational programs, focusing particularly on whether patterns vary between metropolitan and non-metropolitan residents and by gender. Using SIPP data from 2008, they authors observe the returns across vocational certificates and associate degrees by field of study. Finally, they draw policy lessons and consider the implications of the Great Recession on changes in the labor market.

This paper was presented May 25, 2011, at a conference titled “Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America: The Policy, Practice, and Research Issues” at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. The paper is also a chapter in Perna, L. (Ed.), Preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs in metropolitan America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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