The Earnings of Community College Graduates in California

By: Peter Riley Bahr | December 2016

In this study, the author draws on longitudinal data for 1.1 million students in California to estimate the effects of community college credentials on students’ earnings, as compared with students who are not awarded a credential. In contrast to much of the recent work on this subject, which assumed that the effects of credentials on students’ earnings are constant over time, the author estimates the effects of credentials on the rate of change in students’ earnings and allow these effects to vary over time. The author finds significant earnings gains for all levels of credentials, including low-credit awards requiring fewer than six credits. Returns to associate degrees are the most durable over time, while returns to short- and long-term certificates and low-credit awards are strong initially but begin to flatten or decline by seven years after the award. The author finds substantial variability in returns by students’ race/ethnicity and gender. Black men and Black women experience especially strong returns to associate degrees and long-term certificates, relative to other students of the same gender but different race/ethnicity, and men of all racial/ethnic groups experience much stronger returns to short-term certificates than do women. The author also notes wide variation by field of study in returns to credentials. The most consistent returns across levels of credentials are found in the biological sciences, engineering and industrial technologies, health, law, and public and protective services. Finally, the author finds compelling evidence of the need to distinguish returns after a credential is awarded from returns after a student has finished (or otherwise left) postsecondary education, as argued in recent work.

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