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Advantages of Community Colleges

By: Tony Mayer

Impact on Earnings

Community college education has proven to be an important lever in moving people up the income ladder. Those with an associate degree have a median annual income of $50,079, a full $10,000 more than those with a high-school degree and $20,000 more than those that lack a high-school diploma, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Holders of associate degrees earn 18% more in weekly earnings, on average, than those with a high school diploma only, and 62% more than high-school dropouts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While on average, the earnings premium can be significantly less for those who hold workforce certificates, state-level studies have shown that picking a high-demand technical field tends to lead to positive results in terms of wages. One analysis by Benjamin Backes, Harry J. Holzer, and Erin DunlopVelez found that students in the Florida public higher education system who obtained a vocational certificate in fields such as health, transportation, construction, and manufacturing experienced earnings that reflected “relatively strong returns” on their investment in the credential.

Affordability and Return on Investment

Student loans are burdening millions of low-income Americans. Community colleges are an excellent deal in the broader scope of tuition and fees. The average annual tuition and fees for public community colleges is $3,730 versus $10,440 for a four-year public college, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Ample state and federal financial aid options make community college even more accessible via increased affordability.

A recent study by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds that community colleges and many certificate programs have the highest returns in the short term, 10 years after enrollment. Certificates in nursing are particularly valuable in the

short term.The three highest ranking programs to achieve a long-term (40 year) net present value are pharmacy programs at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, St. Louis College of Pharmacy, and Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. And three nursing programs—Putnam Westchester Nursing Program, Greater Lowell Technical School, and Southern Westchester Nursing Program—were ranked highest on a shorter-term (10 year) net present value basis.


One of the inherent strengths of community colleges is their local, geography-based nature. This is important because previous research has demonstrated the importance of geographic location in the likelihood of a student attending college. A joint research report by the American Council on Education and the Center for Policy Research and Strategy found that community college students on average attend a school 31 miles from home versus 82 miles for public four-year schools and 258 miles for private, nonprofit four-year schools. The authors also concluded that community colleges enroll a majority of students in what they term “education deserts,” defined as geographic regions with either no college options nearby or a solitary community college as the only public, broad-access institution available.

Open Access

Historically celebrated as “people’s colleges,” community colleges are widely appreciated for their accessibility and inclusiveness. Indeed, very few students with a high school degree or equivalent are turned away from these institutions, and class schedules are relatively flexible throughout the year. Per their mission, community colleges are more willing to engage with challenging populations compared to other postsecondary options.