Q&A With CAPSEE Director Thomas Bailey

On November 7, 2016, CAPSEE Director Thomas Bailey spoke with Elizabeth Ganga about what has been learned through CAPSEE research since the center launched in 2011, and about its final conference in April 2017.

What were the original goals of CAPSEE?

When we started, there was a tremendous amount of knowledge about the relationship between education at a general level and earnings. But there wasn’t much knowledge about it at a more detailed level. We wanted to look at the effect not only of the type of institution students attend but of the type of program and the path students take through college.

Tell me about the main focus of the research that was conducted.

The basic idea was to look at different types of degrees and programs and find out what the earnings associated with them are. We also had some policy questions we were interested in—some issues about the relationship between financial aid and earnings, between working while enrolled or work-study programs and earnings.

At the same time, we had some methodological questions that were of interest to us. If you compare the earnings of people in different programs and say in one program they earn more, it’s possible that students who enter those programs aren’t the same. That’s been an issue with this type of research. So we were concerned about making some methodological advances in terms of being able to draw better causal conclusions.

And in many cases, the data we had were from one state, and many students who left the state kind of got out of our dataset. So we were concerned about what influence that had, because a lot of research is done on data from one state. When a student leaves the state, it looks like they’re not employed.

What were the main research findings?

We certainly found that, in general, associate degrees have good returns. They’re a good investment for the individual and for society. Individuals also benefit because they’re not paying the full cost of the education they’re getting. The state and sometimes the local government—and sometimes the federal government—is also investing in that. But even if you take the whole society cost, on average, associate degrees have good returns—although there is a lot of variation. If you’re in an associate degree program that’s primarily designed to prepare you for transfer, and if you don’t transfer, that degree is not worth very much. So if you’re going to complete your education at a community college and not move on, an occupational degree is probably a better idea.

We did a lot of research on certificates. All of the ambitious goals that the Obama administration and many foundations have about college attainment really depend on certificates. They’re a fast-growing postsecondary award, and we found that there are some benefits to them. Longer term certificates tend to have stronger returns. Certificates that take less than a year, that was very variable—sometimes there are no returns or negative returns. It depends a lot on which area a student is in. Health certificates tend to be very positive, so in many ways health certificates pull up the average of overall certificates.

We did some work on the earnings of students who went to for-profits, and those tend to be negative, in the sense that similar students who went to the public institutions tended to earn more.

We found an interesting conclusion that for work-study employment, if you just looked at the average benefit, it was a bit misleading. Working in an area that is related to what you were studying had benefits, whereas if you worked off-campus or were doing something that wasn’t related to your area of study, that tended to have negative consequences. So you can’t just look at the average. I think that’s consistent with an awful lot of what we’re doing—you need more detail and specificity to really understand the relationship between education and employment and earnings.

When you say negative returns to a certificate, does that mean they lost money because they weren’t working at the time?

Their earnings were less than had they not done the certificate. I don’t think that taking the certificate hurt them. You put together the fact that they were out of the labor market and weren’t accumulating experience in other jobs at the time, and that they had to spend money on it, and they just didn’t get much value out of the certificate. In some cases, it wasn’t worth anything to them in the labor market, so the fact that they had to put money and time into acquiring it made it a negative investment.

Does the research contain lessons for policymakers or college leaders?

One of the main lessons is that when they’re thinking about education, they have to think about programs. Even within the same institution, programs have very different outcomes. Of course, we found that the returns to health programs tend to be strong. The variation that takes place among programs within one institution is often greater than the variation between different types of institutions.

Another lesson is that there’s a lot to be learned from these data. It’s very difficult. We spent a lot of time acquiring the data. There’s not a good process to be able to assemble transcript-level data—which is very rich and gives us a lot of insights—and link that to employment data. So I would hope that federal and state policymakers understand that, and see that there’s a lot to be learned from this and yet it’s very difficult to actually carry out.

What do you hope people will get out of the spring 2017 CAPSEE conference?

I hope people will see that we’ve made a lot of progress going from more general knowledge of the relationship between types of degrees, such as associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees, and earnings, to a more detailed level of measurement of education and earnings. And I hope that people will take this conference and use it as a springboard to go into further issues.

A big issue is how students get into different types of programs. Low-income and minority students often end up in programs that have lower levels of earnings. Why is that? How can we have a system that helps students figure out which program they want to go into, provides information about the economic returns to those programs, and helps them figure out what’s best for them?

This Q&A was edited for length and clarity. For a 2011 Q&A with Dr. Bailey, click here.