11.13.2009 Policy Points

Community Colleges and Upward Mobility

Americans long have viewed higher education as an engine of upward economic mobility. Typically, discussions of higher education revolve around the outcomes associated with attending four-year institutions and pay scant attention to the benefits of two-year schools.

To correct that shortcoming, the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts recently conducted a study of the educational and employment outcomes of 84,000 student in Florida who were in the 12th grade in 2000. Specifically, the study looked at students who enrolled in college transfer and technical education programs offered at two-year colleges.

Concludes the study:

Community colleges already make major contributions to economic mobility by
enabling students to transfer to four-year colleges, and by teaching work-enhancing
skills. The primary beneficiaries of the transfer function are low-income students who
perform well in high school and college. The primary beneficiaries of the career-enhancing
function are low-income students who did not perform especially well in high school,
but take a wide range of high-return courses while attending community college,
especially courses in health care.
The largest factor limiting the ability of community colleges to raise the earnings of
their students through the transfer function is students’ poor academic preparation in
high school and the difficulty of quickly boosting their performance through developmental
programs. The Florida cohort analysis clearly demonstrates that students need to have
a B or better high school grade point average to have a reasonable chance of attaining
AA degrees, transferring to four-year colleges, and attaining BA degrees. But lack of
supportive services also appears to be of considerable importance, especially in explaining
why more high-performing low-income students do not transfer to four-year colleges.
The Florida study also shows that among A and B+ students, those from low-income
families are 5 percentage points less likely to attend college and 1 percentage point
less likely to attain AA degrees, but over 11 percentage points less likely to transfer
to four-year colleges and attain BA degrees.

Community colleges already make major contributions to economic mobility by enabling students to transfer to four-year colleges, and by teaching work-enhancing skills. The primary beneficiaries of the transfer function are low-income students who perform well in high school and college. The primary beneficiaries of the career-enhancing function are low-income students who did not perform especially well in high school, but take a wide range of high-return courses while attending community college,especially courses in health care.

The largest factor limiting the ability of community colleges to raise the earnings of their students through the transfer function is students’ poor academic preparation in high school and the difficulty of quickly boosting their performance through developmental programs. The Florida cohort analysis clearly demonstrates that students need to have a B or better high school grade point average to have a reasonable chance of attaining AA degrees, transferring to four-year colleges, and attaining BA degrees. But lack of supportive services also appears to be of considerable importance, especially in explaining why more high-performing low-income students do not transfer to four-year colleges. The Florida study also shows that among A and B+ students, those from low-income families are 5 percentage points less likely to attend college and 1 percentage point less likely to attain AA degrees, but over 11 percentage points less likely to transfer to four-year colleges and attain BA degrees.

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