This report provides a timely contribution to the growing public policy debate around how we combat structural inequality by quantifying the power of community college as a pathway to economic mobility. Until recently, it has been difficult to accurately estimate the return to a community college education in Massachusetts because numerous factors affect who enrolls, when they enroll, the rate at which they complete a credential, and the field of study that they pursue. The Commonwealth's State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) allows us to build statistical models that untangle these patterns.
Utilizing this dataset, we can isolate increases in employment and earnings over and above what individuals would have experienced if they had not pursued community college studies. While community colleges serve many types of learners, with this first analysis, we focus on Massachusetts public school students who graduated from high school about a decade ago and enrolled in a community college within five years of high school graduation. These young adults represent a large segment of community college enrollment and a population for whom community college is often the highest level of educational attainment.
Our analysis consistently uncovers strong labor market returns to community college studies for young adults. The gains are greater for women than men. Students who obtain degrees or credit-bearing certificates in high-demand fields garner particularly large increases in employment and earnings. While we find that low-income students and students of color are less likely to persist in community college, those who do complete degrees and credit-bearing certificates enjoy returns that are at least as large as White and non-low-income students. As detailed below, the findings in this report suggest efforts to position more students for community college success can play a meaningful role in building a more equitable Commonwealth.