California’s community college system is the largest provider of career education—also known as career technical education or vocational education—in the state. Career education programs play a critical role in training students, especially underserved and nontraditional students, for jobs that provide solid wages but don’t require a four-year college degree.
How can colleges identify these jobs? In a recent PPIC report, we compare occupational earnings to regional poverty thresholds to assess how future workforce needs connect to well-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree. Other work by the Brookings Institute focuses on “opportunity industries,” in which good jobs—those that provide stable employment, middle-class wages, and benefits—represent an above-average share of the industry’s total jobs and are filled by workers with only some college training.
Opportunity industries are largely concentrated in fields that align with many of the community colleges’ career education disciplines, including business, engineering, health, information technology (IT), and public and protective services. A critical question is whether students are successfully completing programs that will prepare them for careers in these fields.
The good news is that over the past 20 years, there has been a consistent upward trend in the completion of career education credentials in California’s community colleges, with major gains observed in the last decade. This increase spans industries. Notably, more degrees and certificates are being earned in health than in any other discipline—this is important since health credentials are especially valuable in increasing students’ subsequent earnings.
But not all credentials are associated with large economic gains. For example, in our analysis of wage returns, we find that career education credentials in business and IT do not provide much of a wage boost.
Furthermore, there seems to be a mismatch between the awards with the most value and the awards students are earning. While awards from longer programs generally tend to confer more value than those from shorter ones, completion of short-term awards has increased in several career education disciplines.
Community colleges and industry partners need to work together to ensure students have a path to well-paying jobs and the tools needed to succeed. As shown in our research, some of that work begins with colleges structuring effective pathways to these industries and clearly communicating the economic returns and opportunities available to students.
Moreover, strong partnerships between community colleges and nearby industries will be essential in creating a bridge between students and their industry of choice. Ultimately, these efforts can help improve the economic well-being of individual students and the state as a whole.