Exploring Geographic Variation in Equitable Postsecondary Value Among U.S. Community Colleges

Diverse Group of College Students on Campus

Community colleges serve many critical purposes for residents within their local service areas by providing relatively low-cost, open-access postsecondary education and workforce-focused training. Given the hyperlocal enrollment of community college students and their primarily economic reasons for choosing to enroll in college, place-based measures of economic value are increasingly important to understand.

As open access institutions that play an outsized role serving diverse and historically marginalized student populations, community colleges can provide economic value to their students. Improving institutional completion rates and creating clear pathways towards bachelor's degrees can increase community colleges’ economic value.

In response to the public’s questioning of the value of higher education, the Postsecondary Value Commission and its resulting Postsecondary Value Framework (PVF) have encouraged higher education researchers to quantify the value postsecondary institutions provide to students more explicitly. For example, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has used publicly available data to measure students’ earnings against the PVF, providing institution-specific measures of economic value based on their students’ post-college earnings relative to the state in which the postsecondary institution is located.

AIR conducted a research study, funded by IHEP, to understand the geographic variation and predictors of economic value (i.e., earnings premium) provided by U.S. community colleges. This study builds on the PVF and IHEP’s prior research by redefining economic value thresholds based on the core-based statistical area (CBSA), a smaller and more localized geographic unit, in which an institution is located and by investigating the institution-level and community-level characteristics associated with positive (and negative) value.

Most community colleges (75%) in our analytic sample demonstrated positive economic value for a cohort of entering community college students when comparing their annual earnings against workers in the same CBSA with only high school educational attainment. Offering a baccalaureate program at the community college and having more 4-year institutions within a 25-mile radius of the community college are both positively associated with economic value. In contrast, community colleges that serve larger shares of women, Pell Grant recipients, students from historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, and adult learners demonstrate lower levels of economic value.

Additional research on economic value using student-level administrative postsecondary and workforce data can better speak to individual experiences and highlight between-group differences by race/ethnicity and other measures of social disadvantage (e.g., first generation, English learner) and more thoroughly interrogate equity concerns in postsecondary and workforce outcomes.