Community college programs drive higher incomes, especially among women, UC Davis study shows

Community college programs in career and technical education — especially in health professions — lead to significant financial returns, especially for women, according to a new policy brief by the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.

The policy brief summarizes a new study that measured how much a California community college degree, or certificate in the six largest career and technical education disciplines, increased income. The researchers found that on average, an associate’s degree in these fields increased earnings by 33 percent, and shorter term certificates raised earnings by up to 27 percent.

“Understanding the payoffs to completing these programs is particularly important in California, where two-thirds of all college students attend a community college,” said Ann Stevens, the brief’s co-author. Stevens is an economist and the director of the Center for Poverty Research. The brief’s co-authors are Michal Kurlaender, an associate professor at the School of Education, and Michel Grosz, a Ph.D. candidate in economics.

Financial returns varied across fields. Disciplines included in the study were business, information technology, engineering, health, family/consumer studies, and security and law enforcement. Two-year associate’s degree programs in health had the highest return at 69 percent.  

Even certificates, which involve between six months to two years of coursework, increased earnings. Students in business or security and law enforcement services increased their earnings by 14 percent. Certificates in health increased incomes by 27 percent.

The high financial returns of health programs drove an increase in income for women of 42 percent across disciplines for an associate’s degree, since women are more likely to enter programs in health. The increase in income across disciplines for men was 21 percent.

Stevens said these results show that career and technical programs and community colleges are effective pathways to higher incomes for those who are unlikely to complete four-year degrees. Their value, she said, is critical for these students.

“Declining real wages and record high unemployment for those without college degrees make it essential that we understand what programs can most benefit these workers,” said Stevens.

The study relied on data collected from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office on students who enrolled between 1992 and 2011. The data included records for about 2.5 million students. The researchers merged these records on program completion and demographics with administrative data on earnings from before and after enrollment.

The California Community Colleges, enrolling 2.6 million students across 112 campuses, represent the largest public higher education system in the nation. In a typical year, more than half of all degrees and certificates the system awards are in career and technical education.

Media Resources

Karen Nikos-Rose, Research news (emphasis: arts, humanities and social sciences), 530-219-5472,

Alex Russell, Center for Poverty and Inequality Research, 530-752-4798,

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