The Path Less Taken: Barriers to Providing Career and Technical Education at Community Colleges

This report produced by Diane Auer Jones for the American Enterprise Institute, provides discussion on the type of post-secondary degree programs perceptions and significance to earnings. Findings include:

-The earnings associated with post-secondary education vary significantly based on one’s major and career path, among other things.

-Some certificate and associate degree programs in technical and allied health fields at community colleges can result in higher earnings than some bachelor’s degree programs.

-Despite evidence that vocational sub-baccalaureate certificates and degrees have a relatively high payoff, liberal arts and general studies programs have experienced the most rapid growth in community college enrollments and credentials. This may partially explain the mismatch between graduates’ skills and the skills employers demand.

-Community colleges face tremendous structural and policy barriers when trying to create new or expand existing vocational programs, including funding allocation formulas, accreditation requirements, federal regulations, transfer-of-credit policies, and stigmatization of occupational and vocational programs.

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.

Much of the current preoccupation with bachelor’s degrees was born from research such as the 2002 US Census Bureau report The Big Payoff, which used synthetic wage projections to predict that college graduates earn an average of $1 million more over their lifetime than their high school–educated peers.3 While the report’s title captured tremendous attention among policymakers, educators, and journalists, those who cite the report as an impetus for greater investment in higher education typically ignore the qualifying information provided by the authors, including that earnings vary based on factors such as choice of major, geographic location, personal ambition, and decisions about family and work-life balance.

As Mark Schneider, former commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics, has pointed out in prior research,4 college majors matter a great deal to earnings after graduation, perhaps most for students who attend community colleges and are pursuing certificates or associate degrees.5In a recent study of post-college earnings among graduates of Florida’s public colleges,6 Schneider found that those who completed an associate-level physician assistant (PA) program, on average, were the highest earners five years after graduation—even among bachelor’s degree recipients—with median wages of $112,200 per year. That said, PA programs are highly competitive and most require students to already hold a bachelor’s degree and have considerable health care experience before enrolling.7 To the student who has little chance of being admitted to a PA program, knowing about its high payoff is of little value.

Read the full report. 


  1. Nancy Shulock, Jodi Lewis, and Connie Tan, Workforce Investments: State Strategies to Preserve High-Cost Career Education Programs in Community and Technical Colleges, CSU Sacramento Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy, August 2013, http://
  2. National Skills Coalition, “Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs: State by State Snapshots,” February 6, 2017, http://www.nationalskillscoalition. org/state-policy/fact-sheets. Of course, it is hard to know if 53 percent of jobs actually require postsecondary qualifications or if employers have simply come to depend on degrees as a screening mechanism, assuming that to earn a credential an individual must possess the attitudes, behaviors, and aptitudes required for success in the workforce. The results of a recent McKinsey study, however, suggest that the degree is not such a reliable proxy for workforce readiness. See Mona Mourshed, Diana Farrell, and Dominic Barton, Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works, McKinsey Center for Government, January 2013, http://mckinseyonsociety. com/downloads/reports/Education/Education-to-Employment_FINAL.pdf. See also Joseph Fuller et al., Dismissed by Degrees: How Degree Inflation Is Undermining US Competitiveness and Hurting America’s Middle Class, Harvard Business School, October 2017,
  3. Jennifer Cheeseman Day and Eric C. Newburger, “The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings,” US Census Bureau, July 2002,
  4. Mark S. Schneider, Degrees of Value: Differences in the Wages of Graduates from Virginia’s Colleges and Universities, College Measures, September 22, 2016,
  5. Harry J. Holzer and Sandy Baum, Making College Work: Pathways to Success for Disadvantaged Students (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, August 29, 2017),
  6. Mark Schneider and Rooney Columbus, Degrees of Opportunity: Lessons Learned from State Level Data on Postsecondary Earnings, American Enterprise Institute, October 2017,
  7. American Association of Physician Assistants, “Become a PA,”
  8. Full title of the major is “engineering technology/technician, electronics and communications technology.”
  9. Baum and Holzer, Making College Work.
  10. Sandy Baum and Harry Holzer, “Do Too Many Community College Students Major in Liberal Arts?,” Urban Institute, August 31, 2017,
  11. Jennifer Ma, Matea Pender, and Meredith Welch, Education Pays 2016: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society, College Board, 2016,
  12. Rachel Fishman, “College Decisions Survey: Deciding to Go to College,” New America, May 28, 2015,
  13. Holzer and Baum, Making College Work.
  14. Shulock, Lewis, and Tan, Workforce Investments.