NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 23, 2009

With the national unemployment rate at 9.8 percent and over 15 million Americans out of work, students about to leave high school are wondering if they will be able to get jobs that will allow them to move up the income ladder.  For many of these students their best bet is to enter programs at their local community college, says Manhattan Institute fellow Diana Furchgott-Roth.

For example, according to a new study from the Pew Charitable Trust:

  • Getting a two-year associate degree or a credential in a health care field such as nursing, medical imaging, or physical therapy is doable for low-performing high school students and offers them high starting salaries alongside excellent advancement opportunities.
  • The 1,200 community colleges in America now enroll 11.5 million students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, or 46 percent of all undergraduates and 41 percent of first-time freshmen.
  • Community colleges offer a wide range of career-enhancing and academic courses at bargain prices which average $2,400 a year.

Examining 84,000 students in Florida over the period 1996 to 2007, and using other individual data on education and earnings, the researchers found:

  • Students with health-related concentrations earned by far the highest median salaries among all fields: $46,000 initially and $60,000 after seven years
  • Students who earn As and Bs have higher earnings not only because they are more likely to complete their college degrees, but because they choose courses in high-return fields.
  • Only 25 percent of C students gain credentials in these fields, compared to 40 percent of A and B students.

This suggests that with better information and support C students could identify high-return programs that they could complete, in fields that would be of interest to them.

What can be done to empower more students -- especially those with poor high school records -- to enter high-return fields, asked Furchgott-Roth?

  • Improve the academic preparation of entering students, so that they are capable of completing tougher courses of study.
  • Give students more career counseling, so that they know what courses are suitable to their mix of skills, what courses they are likely to complete, and what courses will lead to good incomes when they enter the job market.
  • Make sure that students know what financial assistance is available, and how to get it.
  • Increase incentives for community colleges to provide career counseling and support services.

Source: Diana Furchgott-Roth, "Higher Education and Economic Mobility.", October 22, 2009.

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