Education Policy Initiative dialogues with community college partners about how their students fare in the labor market

May 13, 2013

As part of "Educational Pathways and Employment Outcomes of Community College Students," a major research project led by Peter Bahr, Susan M. Dynarski and Brian A. Jacob, the Education Policy Initiative (EPI) held a dialogue on Wednesday, May 7, at the Ford School with administrators, research analysts, and student service professionals from five Michigan community colleges.

The project shows schools how their students perform in the labor market after leaving community college in order to help them better tailor their programs. Through a partnership with the State of Michigan, the EPI team, which includes research assistants Joanna Frye, Alfredo Sosa, Mark Wiederspan, and Chris Zbrozek, gained access to labor market reports for students from these five schools—an important outcome measure previously unavailable to the institutions themselves. The purpose of Tuesday's meeting was to summarize results for the participating community colleges and to provide them with information they might not otherwise have had the time or capacity to produce.

EPI contributes to a larger, multi-state CAPSEE (The Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment)-funded research project, which examines the employment and earnings benefits associated with a variety of postsecondary paths. They were able to cull the analyses for the five community colleges from this broader project.

"Our goal is to help provide information and analysis to guide strategic decision-making at the community colleges," Jacob said in his introduction, emphasizing that an important aspect of the day's event was to brainstorm future uses for this type of analysis. "The ultimate goal is to start a conversation." Postdoctoral fellow Daniel Kreisman led a presentation of estimated student "returns"—how much more community college enrollees and graduates earn compared to non-graduates four years after enrollment.

The EPI researchers compared the outcomes of two cohorts of students enrolled in community college degree courses and programs to determine earnings gains. "As many of you know, Michigan does not have a higher education system," Dynarski noted, "which means that Michigan does not have a higher education data system to enable this type of analysis. Together with the colleges and the State of Michigan, we are building the infrastructure to help understand employment outcomes of community college courses and programs."

In addition to administrative data from the five schools, researchers used data from the National Student Clearinghouse and unemployment insurance wage records to explore four central questions: how much do students benefit from taking courses in comparison to earning a degree? Are certain degrees or programs more valuable than others? Do certain students benefit more than others? And, finally, how much is a community college degree worth in the labor market?

"These are questions that researchers have only begun to start answering" said Jacob. "Surprisingly little is known about this anywhere—let alone for our set of schools in Michigan."

Such analyses could potentially have several applications, EPI researchers showed, for determining a number of outcomes for students at community colleges.