In this paper, the authors examine the relative labor market gains for first-time college students who enrolled in the North Carolina Community College System in 2002–03. The medium-term returns to diplomas, certificates, and degrees are compared with returns for students who accumulated college credits but did not graduate. The authors also investigate the returns to credit accumulation, subject field, and transfer and the early trajectories of wages for different student subgroups during the 2000s. The analysis is based on student-level administrative record data from college transcripts, Unemployment Insurance wage data, and enrollment and graduation data from the National Student Clearinghouse across 830,000 community college students between 2001 and 2010.
Findings from this study confirm those from earlier work: The returns to certificates and diplomas were weak, but associate and bachelor’s degrees yielded very strong returns; even small accumulations of credits had labor market value; and the returns to health sector credentials were extremely high. Returns were much higher for female students than for male students. Despite the Great Recession, analysis reveals little evidence that the returns to college decreased over the latter half of the 2000s. However, medium-term estimates likely understate the full value of college credentials, particularly bachelor’s degrees.