College to Career

A community college credential should unlock access to meaningful, family-sustaining employment. CCRC examines workforce programs and partnerships to understand how colleges prepare students for a changing economy.

Fast Facts

While both associate degrees and long-term certificates increase the likelihood and stability of employment, associate degrees lead to much higher paying jobs and a greater likelihood of earning a living wage.
There are significant wage penalties for students who transfer from a community college to a for-profit college, as opposed to transferring to a private or nonprofit college.
Based on large-scale studies from six states, the average student who completes an associate degree at a community college will earn $5,400 more each working year than a student who drops out of community college. This estimate adjusts for factors such as the subject studied, college attended, and college GPA.
Attaining a certificate, a non-degree award that typically takes less time to complete than a degree, generally has a positive impact on earnings. But returns vary widely by field.
High school graduates who delay college enrollment experience early earnings benefits by entering the labor force, but these fade out after their mid-20s and turn to significant losses in earnings over time. The majority of the pay gap can be attributed to delayers’ reduced likelihood of earning a four-year degree.
Although it serves more than half a million students annually, the Federal Work-Study program no longer significantly defrays the cost of college: Today’s typical FWS award ($1,550) covers just 16% of average public tuition and fees.

Why We Study the Transition From College to Career

Preparing students for the workforce is a central mission of community colleges, and it is an important focus area for CCRC. In some sectors, workplace technologies are changing rapidly. As regional economies evolve and skill demands shift, many community colleges are considering the next frontier of training programs, exploring partnerships with local employers, and contemplating the economic role they will play in their communities.

CCRC examines the role of community colleges in the American economy and their effectiveness in preparing students to join the labor force in middle-skill occupations. Our research projects in this area center on the pedagogy of career-technical education programs, workforce development efforts at community colleges, and the economic value of a community college credential.

CCRC partners with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the City University of New York (CUNY) to conduct research on this topic. Along with MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, CCRC is examining how employers’ adoption of new technology impacts workforce education programs at community colleges. And CCRC’s policy lab, which operates in a collaboration with CUNY, is developing more nuanced measures of post-college success and studying factors that predict and promote successful transitions from college to the labor force.

From June 2011 to June 2017, CCRC’s federally funded Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE) carried out rigorous research to better understand the employment and earnings benefits associated with a broad range of postsecondary education pathways.

What We Know About What Today’s Employers Want

CCRC researchers have conducted scores of interviews with colleges and employers to learn what skills companies are looking for. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

  • As computers and new technologies dominate daily work life, employers expect employees without bachelor’s degrees to have higher levels of digital literacy and to be comfortable working with technology and using data.
  • Twenty-first century skills such as critical thinking and adaptability are increasingly essential for workers—in part because the jobs that require them are less subject to automation.
  • Increased complexity in entry-level jobs contributes to the demand for workers with stronger math, writing, and English language skills.

Featured Tool

How Much Are Community College Graduates Earning Two Years Later?

What programs are community college students completing, what do they lead to, and which groups of students are underrepresented in programs leading to stronger postgraduation outcomes? Explore the outcomes in your college or state in a Tableau dashboard that links IPEDS completion data with College Scorecard earnings data.

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Our College to Career Experts


Thomas Brock



Judith Scott-Clayton

Senior Research Scholar


Maria Cormier

Senior Research Associate


Veronica Minaya

Senior Research Associate and Program Lead

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View all of our publications on the transition from college to career.