Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies


Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies


Article excerpt


Executive Summary

At a time when employer demand is high for middle-skills workers and employment outcomes for individuals in those jobs are relatively strong, it seems only logical that students would be in hot pursuit of the credentials that qualify them for that work. Education policy analysts have gone to extremes to provide information on post-college earnings and other relevant outcomes to drive students toward programs and majors that result in the best outcomes.

The belief that students will choose better programs if they have access to this information assumes that they have equal access to seats in high-value programs and that the power of choice lies in their hands. For many students, neither assumption holds true. High-value programs may be unavailable to most students because their local community college does not offer them or offers them at times that do not align with a working adult's schedule. High-value programs also typically have high admissions requirements, so most students have little chance of being accepted.

Economists have provided abundant evidence that holding a certificate or associate degree in general studies (also called liberal arts or the humanities) has little to no economic value, yet these programs are growing at community colleges at a faster rate than vocational or occupational programs with higher market value. Why is this so?

At most institutions, at least part of the answer can be found in state and local funding formulas that ignore the added cost of administering occupational or vocational programs, which can cost four or five times more to run than general studies programs cost. Funding, though, is only part of the problem. A number of structural and policy barriers make it far more difficult for community colleges to start or expand vocational programs. For example, accreditation requirements that favor terminal academic degrees make it challenging to identify qualified vocational instructors, and low wages paid to adjunct faculty make hiring them even more difficult.

In some fields, programmatic accreditation requirements are a problem because they ration the number of institutions that can offer a particular program and sometimes the number of students each program can serve. Programmatic accreditation--and its partner, professional licensure or certification--is a primary reason why, for instance, many students who enter college dreaming of a job in a high-paying field, such as nursing, end up in a lower-paying nursing assistant or patient care program by default.

Federal regulations can also dissuade institutions from expanding vocational programs. For example, the "gainful employment" (GE) regulation designed to sanction proprietary institutions applies to community college certificate programs as well. While the graduate debt-to-income ratios set by the GE rule may not be a problem for community colleges given that taxpayer subsidies keep tuition low, student tracking and reporting requirements add to the administrative cost and burden of offering these programs.

Transfer-of-credit policies also put institutions in a bind when deciding program offerings. Despite their lower market value, four-year institutions are most likely to accept general studies courses in transfer--not applied or vocational courses. Advising a student to enroll in a vocational program could be harmful if the student then decides to transfer and pursue a four-year degree.

Many factors contribute to the mismatch between information on students' economic outcomes and the proliferation of general studies programs at community colleges. This review highlights these factors and offers suggestions for policy changes that would enable community colleges to more easily fulfill their vocational education mission.

At the same time employers lament the difficulty of finding qualified workers to fill well-paying, middle-skills jobs, opportunities to prepare for those jobs at the nation's community colleges may be growing harder to find. …

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