Research to Practice
The Economic Benefits of Pre-baccalaureate College: What Can We Learn from W. Norton Grubb?
The NCTN Research to Practice Briefs are designed to disseminate emerging college transition research from a variety of sources in a user-friendly format.
Postsecondary education offers a variety of important benefits for the adult student, but higher income or earning power is not always one of them. Professor W. Norton Grubb, of the University of California at Berkeley, has focused on the economic benefits of community college education by examining research data sets at the national, state, and local levels. This Research to Practice Brief summarizes some of the key points of his investigation, information that may be especially helpful for counselors in their work with adult students considering college.
There are two important considerations to keep in mind in looking at the trends discussed here. First, this analysis adopts a nationwide perspective that smoothes out variations and contradictions from study to study, college to college, and state to state. Second, the analysis does not take into account whether the students begin with a high school diploma, GED, or other type of non-traditional diploma (Tyler, 2002).
What is pre-baccalaureate education?
The term pre-baccalaureate education refers to a wide variety of educational experiences, from as little as one college-level course to the completion of an associate degree program. The economic returns to pre-baccalaureate education depend heavily on the number of courses completed, and whether or not a credential such as a certificate or degree is actually earned. For example, an adult student might decide to pursue an ’s degree in a high-growth occupation such as computer support specialist, legal assistant, medical records technician, or physical therapist. While he or she will learn many new skills in each of the courses taken in pursuit of that degree, Grubb has found that the student will realize an economic benefit only if he or she actually completes the program and receives a diploma. Students who do not complete find they have spent time and money without getting the benefits of increased earnings. Accordingly, it is useful to classify pre-baccalaureate educational attainment into three categories:
In so far as an academic degree is the connection to a baccalaureate degree, students do benefit if they transfer and complete a baccalaureate—a credential with well-known economic benefits. Students who do not complete find they have spent time and money without getting the benefits of increased earnings.
“The take-home message is: credential programs are better than non-credential programs; longer programs are better than shorter; and, students need to worry if certificates have any established LOCAL market value.”
What are the implications for the pre-baccalaureate job market?
Education is just part of the picture. To realize the full economic benefit of a credential, students must actually find a job in the field in which they trained. Students who complete a credential but end up in unrelated employment may experience little economic benefit from their education.
Table 1. Understanding the Pre-baccalaureate Employment Market.
Adapted from Grubb, W.N. (2002). Learning and earning in the middle, part I: National studies of pre-baccalaureate education. Economics of Education Review, 21, pp. 302.
How do the economic benefits differ by race, age, and gender?
What Can Transition Counselors Do?
While there are many benefits to postsecondary education (such as personal satisfaction and growth, increased health and well-being, etc.), the vast majority of students see postsecondary education primarily as a way to find a higher-paying job. Unfortunately, counselors and teachers in transition programs find that personal and academic counseling, rather than career counseling, consumes most of their time. Dr. Grubb’s work points out, however, that careful career planning, counseling, and an understanding of how different pre-baccalaureate programs are connected with local employers can all have a significant positive long-term impact on the student’s economic well-being. To make their career counseling more effective, transition counselors can pursue the following strategies:
“Education in a community college is necessary but not sufficient for all this to pay off. The student needs to earn a credential, in the right occupational area, AND find related employment for all this to payoff.”
A Special Thank You: Dr. Grubb graciously gave of his time to help the NCTN condense his important investigation in pre-baccalaureate education.
Human capital. Assets that cannot be separated from the person who possesses them: knowledge, skills, health, etc. Like other forms of capital, human capital can be employed to generate income for the owner.
Credential. A document representing competency or completion of a specific course of study. High school diplomas, the baccalaureate degree, and various professional degrees are the most familiar and heavily-researched credentials.
Disaggregate the data. Separate a set of information into its component parts. For example, Grubb notes that by looking closely at the actual fields of study that students choose, we see that are some fields are more economically-beneficial for women than men.
Academic credits. College credits not exclusively connected to a vocational pathway but rather designed to transfer to four-year institutions. In general, they tend to correspond to credits earned during the first two years of a four-year baccalaureate degree.
Grubb, W. Norton (2002). Learning and earning in the middle, part I: National studies of pre-baccalaureate education. Economics of Education Review, 21, 299-321.
Grubb, W. Norton (2002). Learning and earning in the middle, part I: State and local studies of pre-baccalaureate education. Economics of Education Review, 21, 401-414.
Tyler, J. N. (2003). Economic Benefits of the GED: Lessons from Recent Research. Review of Educational Research, 73(3), 369-405.