Across the country, a narrative is growing that completing college isn’t necessary and that a couple of well-chosen courses can lead to jobs with strong wages. This story is gaining traction, despite decades of research that shows earning a bachelor’s degree yields stronger earnings over the course of a lifetime. One reason it may resonate is that a significant number of students do take one or two community college courses and net meaningful earning gains. However, new research from the University of Michigan shows that these “skills builder” students rarely increase their salaries enough to move up an economic rung.
WestEd is partnering with the University of Michigan to document the people who engage in skills-builder course-taking, the types of courses and course sequences they complete, and how their economic gains vary by program of study. For example, in California, Colorado, Ohio, and Michigan, skills builders account for about 10–15 percent of new community college entrants. Skills builders are generally older than the overall student population, disproportionately White men, and predominantly first-time college attendees. Most leave college without a credential or transfer to a four-year institution. As a result of their course-taking, skills builders often secure meaningful earning gains—averaging between $7,000 and $10,000. However, most students remain in the low-to-middle rungs of income distribution. Five years after enrolling, their average earnings are between $45,000–$60,000.
Skills-builder course-taking spans a range of fields of study, most often in engineering, business, health, information technology, precision production, security and protective services, and construction trades. Skills-builder course combinations are institution-specific and vary widely across colleges, highlighting the interplay of curriculum, employer partnerships, regional labor markets, and the skills sought by students. Similarly, the economic value of courses may vary within a discipline. For example, at one college, taking a nurse aide training course yielded a small earnings increase, whereas a first aid course helped students attain a living wage.
With funding from ECMC, WestEd has partnered with the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement, the RAND Corporation, and Colorado and Ohio postsecondary agencies to translate these insights into action. By applying the findings to specific initiatives that are seeking to strengthen enrollment, completion, and employment, we are helping colleges identify ways to better support the upskilling and reskilling that often are required to stay current and stably employed in rapidly changing regional economies.
The skills-builder research also provides an opportunity to address a deeper issue in higher education. Community colleges are facing significant shifts in population demographics and regional economies that are upending traditional approaches to recruiting and retaining students. The current enrollment crisis highlights a fundamental service delivery issue: college structures are largely designed for first-time, full-time students. This approach often poses challenges for students balancing work and family responsibilities, particularly in the context of rising inflation, scarce affordable housing, and reduced state funding for education. For many current and potential students, it’s not clear whether attending college is worth the opportunity costs. By better understanding the needs of skills-builder students, colleges and policymakers have an opportunity to identify structural factors that could make staying for a certificate or degree more feasible for many different types of students.
You can learn more about the skills-builder research on WestEd’s new Center for Economic Mobility website, which includes PowerPoint summaries of the findings, webinar recordings, and a research guide to support doing a skills-builder analysis at your own institution or in your state. You can also watch this 12-minute video clip about how skills-builder research relates to serving adult learners.