Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Occupational Outcomes for Students Earning Two-Year College Degrees: Income, Status, and Equity

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Occupational Outcomes for Students Earning Two-Year College Degrees: Income, Status, and Equity

Article excerpt

Introduction

An interesting question in the sociology of knowledge and the politics of scholarship is why scholars studying two-year colleges(1) often conceptualize their research in adversarial terms. Innocent readers, encountering the subject for the first time by studying such works as those by Cohen & Brawer [5] and Brint & Karabel [3] might well wonder if the two books really dealt with the same institutions. Regardless of the reasons for the divisiveness that characterizes the field, advocates and critics make it more difficult to design an investigation of the effects of two-year colleges that not only is nonpartisan but also gives the appearance of being nonpartisan. Our work is no exception.

The case for or against the two-year college is often predetermined by the aspect of the subject researchers choose to study. For example, do we examine access to higher education or persistence in higher education? If we study access, two-year colleges appear to have egalitarian effects; if we study persistence they seem to perpetuate inequality [16]. Many studies focus on persistence or educational attainment. The most often asked question is: are high-school graduates who begin their postsecondary studies in two-year schools as likely as those who enter four-year schools to get bachelors' degrees? Nearly all such studies have found that, even after controlling for several background variables, students aiming to earn bachelors' degrees are more likely to succeed if they begin their studies in a four-year college - between 11% and 19% more likely according to most estimates. This finding has been very extensively documented and explained by Dougherty [6, 7] and recently reconfirmed by Whitaker & Pascarella [25]. (See [15] for an important qualification.)

But focusing only on educational attainment reduces the concept of equality of opportunity to equality of educational opportunity. Educational opportunity usually matters in stratification research because education opens the way to other opportunities, especially for income and status. Hence it is important to investigate, not only the two-year colleges' effects on educational attainment (and thus their indirect effects on occupational attainment). It is also important to investigate two-year colleges' more direct influences on occupational attainment.

When studying occupational attainment as an outcome variable, the approach one takes to the subject again tends to prejudge matters in favor of either the advocates or the critics. The key issue is the proper comparison group. In research that compares individuals who began their postsecondary studies in two-year schools with those who began in four-year schools, the four-year attenders come out well ahead in job status, even after controlling for postsecondary educational attainment [18]. Critics point to this kind of evidence to maintain that two-year colleges perpetuate the existing occupational structure and students' places in it. Much research on the issue has, in fact, been done by critics and has compared the educational and occupational achievements of two-year and four-year college entrants. There has been little doubt that four-year college entrants tend to attain higher occupational status and earnings than two-year college entrants.

But that is not the only appropriate comparison. In this study we load the dice the other way. We compare occupational outcomes for two-year college students with the occupational outcomes of high school graduates who entered the labor market with no postsecondary education. This comparison has not been made very frequently, and the results are much less conclusive than the two-year versus four-year comparison. (See Dougherty's review [7, p. 66] of the scant literature.) Furthermore, we compare these high school graduates with "committed" two-year college students, that is, those who began their studies within eighteen months of graduating from high school and who attended long enough and regularly enough to earn a vocational certificate, an associate's degree, or who transferred to a four-year college and earned a bachelor's degree. …

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