The Labor Market Returns to a Community College Education for Non-Completing Students

By: Peter Riley Bahr | December 2016

In this study, the author uses data from California to estimate the returns to a community college education for students who do not complete postsecondary credentials. The author finds strong, positive returns to completed credits in career and technical education (CTE) fields that are closely linked to employment sectors that are not credential-intensive, such as public safety, skilled blue collar trade and technical work, and accounting and bookkeeping, among others. In these sectors, students are able to convert the human capital acquired in their coursework into returns that far exceed the cost of the coursework itself, making some non-completing educational pathways a rational means of securing earnings gains. This finding is consistent with emerging research on skills-builder students and other segments of the community college student population who exhibit coherent patterns of course-taking and enrollment that typically do not result in a credential. These results are not without caveat, however, as the author also finds that the returns to credits are less consistent for Black and Asian students than they are for White and Hispanic students, and less consistent for female students than they are for male students, indicating the need for further investigation as well as attention to context in applying the results.

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