In earlier eras, our nation’s workforce kept pace with the skill and technology demands of employment through near-universal high school completion, and subsequently through large-scale college enrollment. For current cohorts, however, the education system may have to be much more flexible in offering programs that directly respond to rapid changes in technology and workplace requirements, particularly for those already working or who may face other challenges in attempting to complete a four-year college degree. Those in the latter category tend to be low-income, minority, first-generation, and other traditionally disadvantaged students; these groups have suffered the greatest job losses in the current recession, compounding the polarizing changes to the U.S. labor market over the last decade. Helping these groups attain credentials that have strong value in the labor market is therefore vital to the well-being of the nation and of individual states.
Extensive research has shown the value of a college education. However, much of this research measures the value of a bachelor’s degree or an amorphous and highly heterogeneous category, “some college.” The results provide little insight into the value of the postsecondary education of millions of college students who never complete (nor intend to complete) a bachelor’s degree. Longitudinal datasets with transcripts have allowed for more refined analyses that include different types of community college degrees, and sometimes even certificates (less than two-year awards) and the number of college credits earned. This research generally confirms that subbaccalaureate credentials, as well as college credits without a diploma, are associated with higher earnings. But such findings are still insufficient because they are too broad. Knowing that a particular credential, such as the occupational associate degree, yields returns on average across the country is somewhat useful, but it does not help to understand the value of that credential in particular states or in specific occupations. Students who enroll in college must choose specific programs, and states and colleges must also decide what types of credentials and courses to offer within the context of local and regional labor markets.
In deciding where to invest limited resources for program development, states and colleges need to know what the potential employment returns or outcomes are to specific types of programs and fields of study. Our research will help answer these questions by using large-scale datasets with individually linked data on college enrollment and labor market outcomes for a range of specific postsecondary education pathways, a term that refers to the characteristics, sequences, and timing of student course-taking.
The results of our research on employment returns may benefit federal and state policymakers and educators as they plan programs and devise policies to encourage students to choose and successfully complete particular pathways. Yet it is also the case that the federal government and states also need concrete information on the effectiveness of particular policies and programs that encourage students to enter and complete promising pathways. To extend our analysis of employment outcomes outlined above, our policy research will focus on two substantive areas. First, we will analyze the effects of mixing employment and education as well as the impact of policies that encourage the combining of work and study. Second, given that labor market outcomes vary across different pathways for similar students, we will examine programs that guide students and that provide incentives for students to choose particular fields or pathways.