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Press Release · November 30, 2016

Career Tech Credentials in Health at Community Colleges Yield Sizeable Gains

Students Earn an Average of 50 Percent More, But Wage Returns Vary By Program

SAN FRANCISCO, November 30, 2016—Students who obtain career technical education (CTE) credentials in health care at California community colleges increase their earnings by 50 percent, on average, after they complete their schooling. Economic returns vary across types of credential, with associate degrees—required in programs such as registered nursing and radiologic technology—affording returns about two times larger than long-term certificates and about ten times larger than short-term certificates.

These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

Career training in health care holds particular promise for students and for addressing California’s workforce needs. Health CTE programs attract a large and diverse set of students in the state and are linked to growing job opportunities in health services, a generally well-paying industry for Californians with less than a bachelor’s degree. California’s community colleges are the state’s primary provider of CTE.

The report examines the outcomes for the 120,000 community college students who pursued degrees or certificates in health career technical education—also known as vocational education—over the past decade. It concludes that students who obtain associate degrees earn 63 percent more than they would have if they had not completed the program. Those who get long-term certificates in programs such as licensed vocational nursing or dental assisting see a 39 percent increase. Those who get short-term certificates in programs such as pharmacy technology earn 6 percent more, on average, after completion.

Although wage gains generally increase with program length, there are exceptions: students who earn short-term paramedic certificates typically see wage gains that are similar to those for graduates of some associate programs—about 56 percent.

Among the report’s other key findings:

  • Health CTE students are predominantly female and tend to be slightly older than community college students overall. While health CTE students at the state’s community colleges are more diverse than the student population in California’s other public higher education systems, they are somewhat less diverse than the student population in other CTE programs or the community college system as a whole. Nearly 60 percent of health CTE students are identified as academically disadvantaged and 70 percent are economically disadvantaged.
  • Overall completion rates for health CTE programs are relatively high. More than 70 percent of students who begin a program either earn a credential or transfer to a four-year college within six years. Only about half of the overall CTE student population obtain a credential within six years. However, success varies substantially across health programs. Registered nursing and dental hygiene students have the highest completion rates—85 and 93 percent respectively. At the other extreme, emergency medical services and health IT programs have completion rates below 50 percent.
  • Racial and ethnic achievement gaps across health programs are largely explained by other factors. There is a sizable gap between white and African American—and, to a lesser degree, Latino—students. Academic preparation plays an important role. Students who complete a biology, anatomy, or chemistry class before entering a health CTE program have higher odds of obtaining a health CTE credential—whether or not the program they enter has rigorous prerequisites. Two other important factors are access to financial aid and course-taking behavior. Students who attend full time for at least one term are much more likely to complete. Those who enroll in at least three consecutive terms once they enter a health CTE program are substantially more likely to finish.

The report concludes that efforts to improve completion rates and reduce achievement gaps will be most effective if they enable students to devote more time to their studies after entering a health program. Such efforts can take many forms, including increased financial aid that allows students to attend consecutive terms full time, additional course sections, and advising and other types of student support.

“Improving completion rates among underrepresented minority students in health programs is important—not only because education promotes social mobility but because this will help diversify the health workforce so that it better reflects and serves the state’s population,” said Sarah Bohn, PPIC research fellow, who coauthored the report with PPIC research associates Shannon McConville and Landon Gibson.

The report, Career Technical Education in Health: An Overview of Student Success at California’s Community Colleges, is supported with funding from the Sutton Family Fund.

PPIC released an accompanying report examining the likelihood that students who obtain shorter-term health credentials with lower wage gains return to college to earn higher-level health credentials. It finds that just 13 percent of health CTE students in California obtain multiple credentials but that targeted efforts could increase that share—and have sizeable economic returns for students. The report is titled Health Training Pathways at California’s Community Colleges. It is supported with funding from the ECMC Foundation and the Sutton Family Fund.


The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.