As the nation enters what appears likely to be a slow and prolonged economic recovery, the central role that postsecondary education plays in contributing to upward mobility is receiving renewed attention. Indeed, since unemployment is closely correlated with level of education, policymakers are right to look to increase college enrollment and graduation rates as a way to improve Americans’ economic success.
Past research from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project (EMP) has shown that a college degree quadruples the chances that an individual born into the bottom income quintile will reach the top quintile in adulthood. For community colleges in particular, the project has shown that getting a community college degree increases earnings by an average of $7,900 annually—an earnings increase of 29 percent over those with only a high school diploma. Further, per-credit returns to community and four-year colleges are similar: both convey an annual earnings increase of roughly four to six percent for every 30 credits (two semesters) of courses completed.
Despite this compelling evidence, until recently attention to higher education has largely overlooked the powerful role the nation’s community colleges—which enroll almost half of America’s undergraduates annually—play in boosting economic mobility. Using a database that includes detailed education and employment histories of 84,000 Florida students who reached the twelfth grade in 2000, this paper examines the role community colleges play in enhancing the upward economic mobility of their students. The study looks at the various pathways through which students can increase their earnings, including transferring to a four-year college and completing a terminal associate degree or certificate in a range of high-return fields.