Tuition-free Community College Doesn’t Necessarily Pay

Tuition-free community college is in vogue in Washington and New York City.

President Biden recently publicized his intention to provide billions to community colleges as part of his “infrastructure” plan and his desire to collaborate with governors to push tuition-free community college. Last October, New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer unveiled his plans to make CUNY community colleges tuition-free for everyone.

Proponents argue that tuition-free community college represents “a pathway to the middle class,” or a “ladder of opportunity.” A closer look at community college earnings data reveals that charting that path or scaling that ladder depends on what students study.

The Census Bureau Post-Secondary Employment Outcomes Explorer (PSEO) is a data tool that allows users to filter earnings by higher education institution and major/program. It shows that among the 48 New York community colleges for which the tool provides data, 38 offer degree programs in which graduate median earnings are less than $30,000 five years after graduation, and 17 offer programs in which median earnings are less than $25,000 five years after graduation.

Nationwide, individuals with a high school diploma but no postsecondary education earn a median income of $38,792.

Among New York community colleges that offer degrees in visual or performing arts, median earnings in 16 of 27 programs are less than $30,000 five years after graduation. Overall, unweighted median earnings (i.e. assuming equal enrollment across programs) among graduates in visual and performing arts equal $29,117 five years after graduation.

Less than 3 percent of visual and performing arts graduates work in jobs categorized as “arts, entertainment, and recreation.” Retail is the most popular job for graduates of 20 of 27 programs.

New York community college students who earn degrees or certificates in mechanic and repair technologies—which includes the type of blue collar occupations that have been in high demand on the labor market—experience a significant wage premium. Median earnings in 9 of 17 programs exceed $50,000 five years after graduation. Unweighted median earnings across mechanic and repair technology programs equal $59,822.

PSEO generates estimates by matching university transcript data with a national job database. PSEO tabulations exclude graduates who earn less than the annual equivalent of full-time work at the prevailing federal minimum wage and those with two or more quarters with no earnings in the reference year. In the likely event that those with degrees in visual and performing arts are more likely to meet the exclusion criteria, the earnings gap between arts degrees and mechanic degrees are larger than reported results show.

Notably, PSEO only provides data for graduates. Only 25 percent of New York community college students graduate in three years. That number is likely to decrease if enrollment does not require financial commitments from students.

New York State has experimented with offering tuition-free two- and four-year degree programs under its Excelsior Scholarship program created in 2017. Stringer argues that Excelsior’s requirement that scholarship participants must be enrolled as full-time students is prohibitive to many New Yorkers. Eighty percent of community college students work, and 39 percent work full-time. Moreover, 26 percent of community college students are parents, and 1 in 5 have a learning disability.

These factors could help to explain why, according to Stringer, fewer than 1 percent of community college students in New York received the Excelsior Scholarship in 2017-18.

Stringer is correct that the program requirements hinder many individuals from using Excelsior Scholarships at community colleges.

But the data does not bear his and other public officials’ assumption that any college degree is a valuable college degree out.

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