Community Colleges Offer Low-Cost Path To Well-Paying Jobs

Diana Furchtgott-Roth and Jared Meyer Senior Fellow, Fellow, Manhattan Institute
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The following is adapted from Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young, which will be published on May 12, 2015.

As graduating high school seniors prepare to head into the workforce or off to further studies, many are undoubtedly already worried about their futures. Going to a four-year college used to be a near-guarantee of future success. Now, with an unemployment rate of 8 percent for college graduates under 25, and with an estimated 40 percent of graduates underemployed, prospects for success are less certain. For the class of 2012, nearly 70 percent of college graduates took out student loans, and average debt at graduation was $27,000.

But a four-year college is not the only path to a promising career. Community colleges offer low-cost training for high-paying careers in fields including health services and information technology. They can also be used as stepping-stones to four-year colleges, which often give credit for community college courses. By accepting transfer students and focusing on practical skills needed for work — which are especially valuable to students who have been adversely affected by the slow-growing economy — community colleges can boost economic mobility.

Matt Varzino, a senior at the University of Tennessee, attended community college for two years following his high school graduation. The time he spent there was formative and allowed him to make well-considered decisions about his future. “I know my decision to go to community college was the right one, both professionally and financially,” he told us. “My time spent there helped me decide what field I wanted to concentrate on, and I felt free to experiment with a variety of classes since credit costs were in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. I felt more prepared for university.”

High school guidance counselors need to reevaluate their bias against advising students to attend community college. At four-year colleges some young people pay to pursue degrees they will never complete, or they graduate with degrees that will serve them poorly when they seek jobs. Only four in ten college freshman graduate in four years, and within six years of entering college the number of graduates is still below 60 percent. When time and financial commitments are taken into account, alternatives to a bachelor’s degree can offer better returns.

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research using data from California’s extensive community college network shows that gaining an associate’s degree leads to an average return of 25 percent, which is driven by even higher returns from completing health-care programs. This positive return mirrors prior results from across the country in Florida.

In addition to healthcare, many other high-return fields, such as computer programming, building trades, and protective services, are open to community college students with relatively low high school GPAs. Community colleges play a major role in increasing the earnings of students who would have difficulty boosting their career prospects by completing the four-year programs required to enter high-return fields.

Jobs in healthcare services, such as physicians’ assistants, occupational therapists, and nurses, are growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that as Americans age and demand better health these occupations will see the most job growth during the next decade, to 15.6 million workers, an 11 percent increase. Throughout the recession and the sluggish recovery, employment in health services has never declined.

Many reasons exist to choose a two-year community college program over a four-year degree program, and the decision comes down to what is right for each graduate. Guidance counselors should not discourage students from a potentially worthwhile investment. For about 35 percent of the cost of attending a public in-state college, and for about 5 percent of the cost of a private college, community colleges offer a broad range of high-quality courses at a low tuition of about $3,200 annually.

Over a thousand community colleges enroll 12.4 million students from a variety of educational backgrounds, from top students who cannot afford to attend a four-year college to students who lack the credentials to get in. For those who want to graduate debt-free and start a well-paying job, community college might well be the best choice out there.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth is director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute and Jared Meyer is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. They are the coauthors of “Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young.” Follow Diana on Twitter @FurchtgottRoth and Jared @JaredMeyer10.