This post was written by Kathy Booth, Senior Research Associate, WestEd.

What is the value of a college education?

The Aspen Institute recently released a report, From College to Jobs: Making Sense of Labor Market Returns to Higher Education, that seeks to answer this question.

The report shares eight research papers that examine the trends, technical challenges, and potential benefits of using data like student earnings to measure success.

The first paper in the Aspen Institute’s publication was contributed by me and my colleague, Peter Riley Bahr. In it, we described several studies from the California community college system that reveal some surprising things about the impact of community college on students’ earnings.

For example, these studies show that a college credential isn’t always necessary to secure an earnings gain. Many older students—who already have work experience and may hold a degree or certificate—are taking one or two community college courses to fill in job-related skills gaps. These students rarely complete a certificate or degree but often make significantly more money following completion of these courses.

This finding has important implications for policymakers establishing funding based on the number of students completing degrees, and for college leaders seeking to measure the economic impact of their programs.

Other interesting and important findings in our paper are:

  • Graduates of California community colleges see a positive return on their investment at all levels of study, from certificates that can be earned in under a year to an associate’s degree
  • Earnings gains vary significantly depending on what students study

For more on our study and findings, download From College to Jobs: Making Sense of Labor Market Returns to Higher Education.

If you’d like to learn more about the various pathways students take into and through community college and/or explore ideas regarding more comprehensive success measures, have a look at these short videos and this resource, The Ones That Got Away: Why Completing a College Degree Is Not the Only Way to Succeed. Together, these resources demonstrate how higher education is evolving to address the needs of people who must prepare for multiple careers over their lifetime.