June 3, 2023

If you’re thinking about quitting, don’t

Observe the proportion of the population employed based on education attainment.
U.S. Census Bureau

The next step for the 236,000 students who enrolled across Pennsylvania’s 15 community colleges in 2020 should be to transfer to a four-year school or enter the workforce. However, trends of enrollment, retention and graduation rates for two-year schools seem to consistently crash … which is great news for students completing degrees and seeking employment.

About 80% of community college students in 2013 reported wanting to earn a Bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 14% completed a Bachelor’s degree within six years, according to the Community College Research Center.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that community college retention rates for full-time students dropped 61% to 59.7% from 2018 to 2019. Retention rates for part-time students at two-year institutions dropped 44.6% to 40.6% in 2019. The total retention rate for all two-year students in 2019 was 51.6%.

NCC had 8,951 enrolled students in Fall 2020, 60% of which were part-time students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of enrolled students, 59% of full-time and 43% of part-time students returned from the previous year.
Of NCC’s 2017 enrollment, 3,491 were classified in the “full-time, first-time” demographic. Of these 3,491 students, 22% graduated and 27% transferred out within three years.

This nationwide drop in enrollment, which a recent Guardian article called “chilling,” is good news for students intent on completing their studies.

Besides less competition for scholarships and transfer spots, graduating students will find broader employment options.
Associate degree holders ranked second in employment behind students with a Bachelor’s degree. Throughout the COVID-19 recession, the pattern is mirrored for unemployment rates; Associate degree holders’ unemployment rate was 6.3% compared to Bachelor’s degree holders’ 3.8%, according to the Community College Research Center.

Workers with some college, only a high school diploma or no high school diploma consistently ranked the highest in unemployment.

Students completing degrees look forward to higher wages in addition to high employment rate. The estimated lifetime earnings for workers with a high school diploma is $1.3 million compared to $1.7 million for Associate degree holders and $2.7 million for Bachelor’s degree holders, according to the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities.

The Community College Research Center collected data on Pennsylvania’s two-year programs with the most Associate degree graduates and their corresponding salaries for 2014-‘16. Registered nursing programs had 1,157 graduates with $59,238 as median earnings two-years post-graduation, followed by: liberal arts and sciences with 916 graduates earning $24,270 and general studies with 544 earning $24,141.

Certificate and Associate degree holders from occupational or technical programs make more than academic-related degree holders. However, most academic-related Bachelor’s degrees earn more than occupational or technical Associate degrees.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median salaries for degree holders in 2020 was $55,870 for Associate’s, $78,020 for Bachelor’s, $76,800 for Master’s (yes, less than Bachelor’s) and $110,160 for Doctoral or Professional degree levels.

The potential to earn a higher salary may excite prospective students while facing student debt, commonly deemed “crippling,” scares many away from pursuing an education. Looking at sticker prices of tuition can be daunting; however, many fail to take into account the various scholarships, grants, work-study programs and loan options available to students. The average student graduates college with $37,102 in debt, according to 2016 Chamber of Commerce data.

Across different career fields, BLS projects, from 2020-’30, that business, management and sales is the field that will have the largest openings and highest median salary at all job levels.

Most business and computing careers are projected to grow at a “faster” or “much-faster-than-average” rate through 2020-‘24, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Alumni success reflects on the appearance of schools. Two-year schools want their students to graduate, transfer and become employed so prospective students flock to the school. Naturally, most colleges offer services to ensure post-graduation success.
Student and Career Services at NCC implement resources to aid students on their journey. NCC’s Learning Center provides tutoring and academic coaching while counseling services offers academic, career and personal counseling by trained professionals.

NCC’s Career Services department prepares students for employment through resume and interview help. Career Services works to secure student experience through internships, job shadows and job placement programs.

Not only is completing a degree, or degrees, beneficial to the degree holder, but also to local economies. Research by Brookings found that the average Bachelor’s degree holder contributes $278,000 more to local economies than average high school graduates.

Average Associate degree holders contribute $81,000 more than those with no college. The same study found that 68% of two-year college alumni remain in the area of their college compared to 42% of four-year colleges.

Combating down-trending enrollment rates is dependent on the persistence of students and high education institutions ability to convince students of the benefits of higher ed. Barring lifelong personal or economic financial growth, higher ed is a place where students can find friends, mentors, their passions or themselves … all in exchange for a few extra years of school.

Column by Jared Larson: jared.larson@nullstudent.northampton.edu

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