What happens when community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees?

Dive Brief: 

  • People who earned a bachelor’s degree at Florida community colleges were making about $10,000 more annually than their peers who received associate degrees in similar fields four quarters after graduating, according to a new analysis from New America, a left-leaning think tank. 

  • The share of bachelor’s degree recipients who were Black, White, Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander closely mirrored that of Florida’s population, though Latinx students were underrepresented. They were also more likely to be older than their peers at state universities. 

  • The analysis sheds light on the labor market outcomes other states can expect from allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees. 

Dive Insight: 

More than 40,000 students were working on bachelor’s degrees at community colleges in Florida in the 2016-17 academic year, surpassing undergraduate enrollment at the state’s flagship, according to the report. The state bills these programs as a way to address education deserts and labor shortages. 

Nearly two dozen other states also allow at least one of their community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees, though they are typically more workforce-oriented than those offered at four-year schools. 

New America’s analysis suggests bachelor’s degrees from community colleges can help graduates land jobs and earn higher wages, but it also found disparities. Latinx graduates in health professions earned at least $16,000 more annually than their Black and White peers, while Black graduates in early childhood education outearned these two groups. 

And in four out of five fields studied, men earned more than women at the associate and bachelor’s degree level. In health professions, men with bachelor’s degrees from community colleges made $63,144 annually, compared to $45,896 for women. This data challenges the theory that gender pay gaps would substantially shrink if women chose higher-paying fields, the analysis notes. 

Some university leaders have pushed back on these programs, saying they encroach on their territory. 

Two-thirds of presidents at public and private four-year institutions indicated in a 2019 survey from Inside Higher Ed that community colleges shouldn’t be allowed to offer bachelor’s degrees. 

And one recent study found that community colleges granting bachelor’s degrees can harm enrollment at nearby four-year schools, though mostly at for-profit colleges.

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