Associate degrees linked to better employment, earnings

new study from the American Council on Education recommends that high school graduates pursue associate degrees as a way to improve their economic status — and that community colleges have better personal and academic supports for them once they get there. 

Students who earn an associate degree are more likely to have jobs, earn higher wages, own a home, vote and volunteer than those who haven’t enrolled in any postsecondary institution, the study found. 

The report recommends that high schools emphasize the benefits of an associate degree to students by incorporating more college and career education in the classroom. Colleges can also support these efforts by offering opportunities for students to visit their campuses. 

Although an associate degree comes with economic benefits, the report notes that not enough community college students graduate. In fact, fewer than 40% of them earn a certificate or degree within six years. 

To improve completion rates, the report recommends that community colleges create “more structured pathways” to graduation, reform remedial education and bolster advising services.

The report cites the City University of New York’s ASAP program as one model that other colleges could follow to achieve these goals. The ASAP model, which has helped boost completion rates, places an emphasis on mentoring, academic tutoring and career counseling.

Colleges in other states have also seen success with the model. In Ohio, for instance, three community colleges doubled their graduation rates when they implemented more supports for low-income students. 

Other efforts are underway to improve graduation rates at community colleges. Last month, the Association of American Colleges & Universities announced a new initiative to improve how community colleges assist students in choosing and completing a program. The organization will help 20 community colleges “build institutional capacity and develop resources” to foster more student learning, it announced in a news release

Interest has also been growing around streamlining transfer pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions. While eight out of 10 entering community college students say they want to earn a four-year degree, only one-third end up transferring to a four-year college within six years, according to data cited by the Brookings Institution

When they do transfer to four-year institutions, however, they tend to graduate at rates equivalent to or better than students who matriculated from high school, according to a recent report from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Yet community college transfers account for only 21% of new students at less competitive colleges and just 5% of students at most competitive schools. 

Despite the increased attention, however, community colleges face hurdles. A recent survey from Revealing Institutional Strengths and Challenges notes that while community college graduates report a positive experience on campus, they face a wide range of personal challenges, such as juggling work and class, paying for various expenses and meeting the needs of their families. 

In addition, Inside Higher Ed reported that community colleges, which often have tighter budgets than other institutions, could see sharp enrollment declines as the pool of high school graduates shrinks in the coming years. 

By: James Paterson & Natalie Schwartz