Social Innovation
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Turning Community Colleges into Engines of Economic Mobility and Dynamism

10.31.23 | 17 min read | Text by Jan Jaro

Community colleges should be drivers of economic mobility, employment, and dynamism in local communities. Unlike four-year institutions, many of which are highly selective and pose significant barriers to entry, two-year colleges are intended to serve people from a wide range of life circumstances. In theory, they are highly egalitarian institutions that enable underserved individuals to access learning, jobs, and opportunities that would otherwise not be available to them.

However, community colleges are asked to do a lot of things with relatively little funding: they serve individuals ranging from highly gifted high school students to prospective transfers to four-year universities to people earning skilled trades certificates. This spreads schools’ attention broadly and is especially problematic given the wide range of non-academic challenges that many of their low-income students face, such as raising dependents and lack of access to reliable transportation. Troublingly, many community college degrees do not result in an economic return on investment (ROI) for their students, and many students will not recoup their investment within five years of completing a community college credential.

To address these issues, policymakers should reform community colleges in two essential ways. First, community colleges should align curricula toward fields with high wages and strong employer demand while increasing the amount of work-based learning. This shift would provide more job-ready graduates and improve student salaries and employment rates, thereby increasing student ROI. Second, the federal government should provide greater financial assistance in the form of Pell Grants and funding for wraparound services such as transportation vouchers and textbooks, allowing more students to access high-quality community college programs and graduate on time. These are interventions with a track record of proven success but require greater funding and support capacity to scale up at a national level.

Challenge and Opportunity

Challenge 1: Community colleges serve a wide range of students, including working parents seeking a better job, students who intend to transfer to four-year universities, and high school students taking dual enrollment classes.

There is no such thing as a typical community college student. As part of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, the Aspen Institute collected demographic and outcomes data for its top 150 community colleges. Within this group, over 30% of students are “nontraditional” students over the age of 25, and 45% are minorities. Moreover, 63% of community college students attend part-time, which poses significant challenges in terms of scheduling and momentum. This severely impacts retention, graduation, and transfer rates. By contrast, just 11% of students at four-year flagship institutions are enrolled part-time. Community colleges must juggle these competing priorities and must do so in the absence of clear guidelines and insufficient resources.

Challenge 2: Underprivileged students tend to struggle the most given their financial constraints and insufficient access to wraparound services. At the same time, community colleges are already starved for resources and may not have the capacity to provide those critical services to these students.

Community college students are more likely than their four-year counterparts to come from less wealthy backgrounds. As of 2016, 16% of students in four-year colleges come from impoverished families, with another 17% coming from families near poverty. By contrast, some 23% of dependent community college students and 47% of independent students come from families with less than $20,000 of annual income. Unsurprisingly, two-thirds of community college students work, with roughly one-third working full-time.

Figure 1. Family income backgrounds of community college students.
< $20,00037%23%47%
$50,000 and up33%49%22%

Community colleges will be hard-pressed to cover students’ financial shortfalls from their own budgets. On average, community colleges receive $8,700 per full-time equivalent student versus $17,500 per student for four-year colleges (this overstates funding per enrolled student, because more community college students are enrolled part-time). Moreover, over half of community college funding comes from local and state sources. As a result, schools with the highest proportion of low-income students are more likely to have lower funding.

Challenge 3: The United States needs more nurses and allied healthcare workers, IT and cyber professionals, and skilled tradespeople, but the recruiting pipeline and training pathway for these individuals is often understaffed, highly fragmented, and hyperlocal.

Many industries with high-paying wages have experienced or will soon experience major talent shortages in the next decade. For instance, by 2030 the United States will need another 275,000 registered nurses, which, at the minimum, requires an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) to sit for the NCLEX entrance exam. The country needs another 350,000 cybersecurity professionals, especially in the federal workforce, where 50% of the workforce is over the age of 50 and approaching retirement age. Finally, and certainly not least, the distributed renewable energy grid will not build itself: 30% of union electricians are between the ages of 50 and 70, and we will need more solar installers, wind technicians, and other skilled trades specialists to enable the green transition.

However, these issues are not easily solved by digitally native solutions rolled out at a national level. Instead, these need to be tackled at a local level. For instance, access to clinical space can only happen through hospitals, while skill development for electricians, installers, and technicians primarily occurs through high school and community college CTE classes and industry-led apprenticeships, all of which require a substantial in-person component. Thus, workforce training to fill shortages will have to be similarly local in nature.

Challenge 4: The value of the two-year associate’s degree and certificates is highly variable and depends on the type of degree or certificate earned.

The Burning Glass Institute studied the career histories of nearly 5 million individuals who graduated between 2010 and 2020 and built a rich dataset that tied salary information to LinkedIn profiles. They then assessed “degree optional” roles (jobs where 50% to 80% of individuals held a degree) and found that a four-year degree provided a 15% wage premium, which was largely driven by the job flexibility provided by the bachelor’s degree. By comparison, they found no such premium for two-year associate’s degrees.

However, these averages hide the economic variance provided by individual degrees. Third Way investigated the economic payback period for graduates of different degree programs, which they defined as the pay increase over the median high school graduate divided by the net tuition cost. Highly technical engineering, healthcare, and computer science associate’s degrees provided exceptional payback periods, with more than 90% recouping their investment in less than five years.

Figure 2. Associate’s degree payback period by select fields of study.
Highest Proportion of Associate’s Degree Programs That Allow Graduate to Recoup Their Educational Investment in Five Years Or Less
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of GradsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of Programs% of Programs
Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research and Clinical Nursing56,70187556,64087299.70%
Electromechanical Instrumentation and Maintenance Technologies/Technicians1,861651,8496498.50%
Allied Health Diagnostic, Intervention, and Treatment Professions23,68653422,50352097.40%
Electrical Engineering Technologies/Technicians1,702721,6757097.20%
Industrial Production Technologies/Technicians1,856511,8314996.10%
Drafting/Design Engineering Technologies/Technicians1,412711,3736895.80%
Practical Nursing, Vocational Nursing and Nursing Assistants1,293291,2212793.10%
Dental Support Services and Allied Professions7,7052366,87721992.80%
Computer Programming1,052479804391.50%
Clinical/Medical Laboratory Science/Research and Allied Professions1,943881,5218090.90%

Adapted from Third Way Institute

By contrast, other associate’s degrees saw no economic ROI. Some of these degrees, such as general humanities and culinary arts, are unsurprising. However, other fields, such as biological and physical sciences, for which half of students had no ROI, might have had stronger ROIs as bachelor’s degrees.

Figure 3. Associate’s degrees with a high proportion of programs with no ROI.
Highest Proportion of Associate’s Degree Programs with No Economic ROI
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsNO ROI – # of GradsNO ROI – # of Programs% of Programs
Human Development, Family Studies, and Related Services.2,071971,6798082.50%
Teacher Education and Professional Development, Specific Levels and Methods.3,9011393,27310978.40%
Audiovisual Communications Technologies/Technicians.1,304311,1091961.30%
Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities.67,47777931,15245458.30%
Design and Applied Arts.4,0591101,6655449.10%
Biological and Physical Sciences.1,782408071947.50%
Culinary Arts and Related Services.2,826602,2807043.70%
Business Operations Support and Assistant Services.3,4251431,3545941.30%
Hospitality Administration/Management.1,189504891938.00%
Mental and Social Health Services and Allied Professions.1,529635202133.30%

Adapted from Third Way Institute

Similarly, certificate programs have wildly varying ROIs. Nursing and diagnostic and skilled trades generally show a strong ROI, with more than 85% of students recouping their investment within five years. On the other hand, cosmetology, culinary arts, and administrative services are highly likely to receive no ROI, indicative of the low pay in the roles that certificate earners take upon completion of their program.

Figure 4. Certificate programs with high ROI (top) and no ROI (bottom).
Highest Proportion of Certificate Programs That Allow Graduates to Recoup Their Educational Investment in Five Years Or Less
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of GradsFive Years Or Less to Recoup Educational Investment – # of Programs% of Programs
Transportation and Materials Moving, Other2,01932,0193100.00%
Heavy/Industrial Equipment Maintenance Technologies1,867471,8554697.90%
Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research and Clinical Nursing1,874371,8413594.60%
Criminal Justice and Corrections3,7322136,39319290.10%
Allied Health Diagnostic, Intervention, and Treatment Professions7,8781123,18210291.10%
Practical Nursing, Vocational Nursing and Nursing Assistants32,01655228,18549689.90%
Ground Transportation7,891827,6437389.00%
Electrical and Power Transmission Installers4,603944,8969185.00%
Precision Metal Working16,46725213,26921284.10%
Environmental Control Technologies/Technicians4,673373,9333183.80%
Highest Proportion of Certificate Programs With No Economic ROI
Field of StudyTotal # of GradsTotal ProgramsNO ROI – # of GradsNO ROI – # of Programs% of Programs
Cosmetology and Related Personal Grooming Services87,34580785,08278997.80%
Somatic Bodywork and Related Therapeutic Services13,89517613,41516593.80%
Audiovisual Communications Technologies/Technicians1,32761,202583.30%
Veterinary/Animal Health Technologies/Technicians1,810211,7151781.00%
English Language and Literature, General1,82791,222777.80%
Culinary Arts and Related Services3,188542,3063972.20%
Business Operations Support and Assistant Services2,566602,0804270.00%
Allied Health and Medical Assisting Services69,81541446,75521852.70%
Health and Medical Administrative Services24,00928914,66413747.40%
Dental Support Services and Allied Professions18,93920311,7689647.30%

Adapted from Source: Third Way Institute

Together, these studies show that associate’s degree programs and certificates with less-defined career pathways are at risk of value erosion. This may be due in part to real differences in the skills taught in a two-year degree or certificate versus a four-year program. However, it is also clear that highly technical associate’s degrees and certificates designed to meet employer-defined needs have better economic ROIs, suggesting that there is less value erosion in roles with well-defined pathways.

Plan of Action

To address these issues, policymakers, community college leaders, employers, and philanthropic stakeholders should work together to implement five general reforms:

  1. Reorient community college offerings toward technical associate’s degrees and certificates that have been shown to have a strong, locally proven ROI for students while pruning programs that do not have compelling outcomes. The federal government should allocate funding to programs that have compelling five-year repayment rates and fill jobs that have high and persistent skills shortages. In addition, the Department of Education can write a “Dear Colleague Letter” that focuses on program ROI and suggest that Congress pass laws strengthening ROI requirements for federal funding
  2. Community colleges and local employers should partner to deliver more job training at scale, including apprenticeships and skills-based part-time work. Many of these programs, such as Project Quest, have been established for years, and community colleges can and should play a bigger role in building a student pipeline and delivering in-classroom training that leads to a high-quality credential. In addition, under the Inflation Reduction Act, local employers can receive tax breaks for clean energy projects that use registered apprenticeships. These apprenticeships, which supplement on-the-job training with classroom instruction and are tailored to employer needs, can be provided by community colleges
  3. Increase Pell Grant maximums to improve degree affordability and access. For the upcoming 2023–2024 school year, the maximum could be raised by $500, in line with the 2024 President’s Budget. Congress should enact provisions in the president’s budget that would provide $500 million in funding for community college programs that lead to high-paying jobs and $100 million for workforce training, both of which would strengthen post completion outcomes. In addition, Congress should pass legislation that makes Pell Grants nontaxable, which would enable students to use funding on living expenses.
  4. Develop and fund high-ROI wraparound solutions that have been shown to improve student outcomes, such as those developed by the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). These include career guidance, textbook assistance, and transportation vouchers, among others. The Department of Education should also allow community colleges to spend funding (for example, some of the increases proposed in the president’s budget) on supports that are not already covered by existing entitlement programs. In addition, state and local governments can earmark special taxes and work closely with philanthropic funders to experiment with and deploy wrap     around solutions, helping policymakers further assess the most cost-effective interventions. 
  5. Create comprehensive data tracking mechanisms that track data at state and local levels to evaluate student outcomes and relentlessly funnel public, private, and philanthropic capital toward interventions and degree programs that are shown to result in strong outcomes. In particular, the recommendations in the bipartisan College Transparency Act are a good start given that they would tie Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data together.

Recommendation 1. Community colleges should reorient their offerings toward degrees that provide strong employment outcomes and student ROI (e.g., associate’s degrees in nursing and maintenance and installer certificates). 

The data is unambiguous: Some programs deliver strong outcomes while others are drains of students’ and taxpayers’ money. Community colleges can better serve students by focusing more time and resources on the programs that deliver strong ROIs within their local economic contexts. As Figures 2–     4 show, these programs skew heavily toward nursing and allied health, engineering and computer science, and skilled trades roles. These also dovetail with major labor shortages, suggesting that community colleges can play a significant role in matching labor supply with demand.

This premise sounds deceptively simple but requires a meaningful reimagination of the role that community colleges play. By asking community colleges to refocus toward highly technical associate’s degrees and certificates, they would end up eschewing other aspects of the higher education landscape. In this view, community colleges would de-emphasize the production of liberal arts associate’s degrees. While they would continue to teach core science and humanities courses, the structure and content would be primarily geared toward equipping students with the critical thinking and foundational skills required to excel in higher-level technical courses. Community colleges would thus further increase their role in providing vocational training.     

Refocusing community colleges on certain degrees would allow institutions to devote their limited resources to helping students navigate a smaller set of pathways. While it is certainly true that community colleges could improve liberal arts associate’s degree ROIs by helping students transfer to four-year universities, a greater emphasis on vocational degree production would help two-year colleges focus on their core competitive advantage in the higher education market. In the long run, greater focus would reduce administrative burden while helping professors, guidance counselors, and financial aid officers develop expertise in high-demand training and career pathways. In addition, a narrower focus on high-ROI degrees improves the effectiveness of public and philanthropic spending, making large-scale interventions more feasible from political and financial perspectives.

Recommendation 2. At the local level, community colleges should partner with employers to deliver job-specific training at scale (for example, apprenticeships or skills-based part-time work paired with associate’s degrees), helping economies match labor supply and demand while providing students with pay and relevant work experience.

Although increased tuition assistance would significantly improve financial access for many community college students, the reality is that programs such as the Pell Grant, while highly effective, still leave students with major financial gaps. As a result, many community college students end up working: as Figure 1 shows, 47% of independent community college students come from incomes of less than $20,000. 

A practical approach would be to ask how we might optimize the value of hours worked rather than asking how we might avoid hours worked at all. Many community college students are employed in retail and other frontline roles: in fact, 23% of students in the Washington state dataset worked in retail at the start of their academic career, while another 19% worked in accommodation and food service. These are entry-level roles that pay low salaries, provide poor benefits, and are unlikely to teach transferable skills in high-paying professions. 

A better way to provide wages as well as professionally transferable skills would be to increase funding for work-based training programs, including apprenticeships and part-time roles, that are directly related to the student’s course of study. The Department of Labor should fund a large increase in work-based training programs that provide the following characteristics:

Research has started to highlight the long-term benefits of well-designed work-based learning programs focused on high-paying jobs. San Antonio-based Project Quest works with individuals in healthcare, IT, and the skilled trades to provide low-income adults with credentials and employment pathways (sometimes through community colleges but also with trade schools and four-year universities providing certificates). In addition to training, Project Quest provides comprehensive wraparound support for its participants, including financial assistance for tuition, transportation, and books, as well as remedial instruction and career counseling.

In 2019, Project Quest published the results of its nine-year longitudinal study that included a randomized controlled trial of 410 adults, 88% of whom were female, enrolled in healthcare programs. Thus, replicability for other industries may prove challenging. Nonetheless, the study showed highly positive and statistically long-term earnings impacts for its participants, results that have not been easily replicated elsewhere.

Properly designed standalone apprenticeships have the potential to deliver large and positive impacts. For example, the Federation of Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) has long had an apprenticeship program in Kentucky to develop high-quality automotive manufacturing talent for skilled trades roles, which blends technical training for automotive manufacturing, skills that can be transferred to any industrial setting, and soft skills education. Participants complete an apprenticeship and finish with an associate’s degree in industrial maintenance technology. Within five years of graduation, FAME graduates had average incomes of almost $100,000.     

The Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Act, and CHIPS Act have made it clear that reinvesting in America’s industrial base is a key policy priority. At the same time, the private sector has identified major skill shortages in the skilled trades as well as healthcare and IT. Community college administrators can lead the effort to create work-based training solutions for these key roles and coordinate the efforts of various stakeholders, including the Departments of Education and Labor, state governments, and philanthropic organizations seeking to fund high-quality comprehensive solutions such as the ones developed by Project Quest. In doing so, community college leaders can move to the vanguard of outcomes-driven, ROI-based higher education.

Recommendation 3. The federal government should increase Pell Grant funding and ensure that more students receive funds for which they are eligible.

Pell Grants are an essential component of college funding for many low-income college students, without which higher education would be unaffordable. For the 2023–2024 school year, the Pell Grant maximum is $7,395, and on average students receive around $4,250. By contrast, the average tuition at a community college is just under $4,000, with the total cost of attendance at around $13,500. Thus, the average Pell Grant would cover all of tuition but just one-third of the total cost of attendance, assuming that the student was enrolled full-time. Nonetheless, Pell Grants are highly effective tools: the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond conducted a pilot study of 9,000 students and found that 64% of Pell recipients had graduated, transferred, or persisted in their program within 200% of the normal completion time, as opposed to 51% of non-Pell recipients. 

Increasing Pell Grant awards will have two important effects. First, additional Pell Grant assistance reduces the out-of-pocket tuition burden, in turn increasing financial capacity for critical expenditures such as living expenses, textbooks, and transportation. Second, students who receive Pell Grant funding in excess of the tuition maximum could directly apply funds to those expenditures. However, under current IRS code, Pell Grant funding that is applied to living expenses is taxable. Congress should pass legislation that makes Pell Grants nontaxable in order to avoid penalizing students who use funds on critical expenses that might otherwise go unfilled or would require funding from an outside organization. 

President Biden’s 2024 budget, which proposes a $500 increase in the maximum Pell Grant, is an excellent baseline for increasing access to high-quality community college programs. In all, this is estimated to cost $750 million in 2024 (including four-year college students), with a more ambitious pathway to doubling the grant by 2029. Moreover, the president’s budget calls for $500 million to start a discretionary fund that provides free two-year associate’s degree programs for high-quality degrees. These proposals have shown progress at the state level: for instance, Tennessee, a Republican-led state, offers free community      or technical college to every high school graduate. Furthermore, tying funding to programs with strong graduation and salary outcomes ensures that funding flows to high-quality programs, improving student ROI and increasing its appeal to taxpayers.

Policymakers should also do more to ensure that students take advantage of funds they are eligible to receive. In 2018, the Wheelhouse Center for Community College Leadership and Research examined data from nearly 320,000 students in California. Over just one semester, they found that students failed to claim $130 million of Pell Grants they were eligible for. Sometimes, students simply forget to apply, but in other cases, financial aid offices put artificial obstacles in the way: half of financial aid officers report asking for additional verification beyond the student list required by the Department of Education. Community colleges should be given more resources to ensure that eligible students apply for grant funding, but financial aid offices can also help by reducing the administrative burden on students and themselves.

Recommendation 4. In addition to expanding Pell Grant uptake, the public sector should fund and distribute wraparound services for community college students focused on high-impact practices, including first-year experiences, guidance counseling and career support, and ancillary benefits, such as textbook vouchers and transportation passes. 

In 2014, the Center for Community College Student Engagement assessed 12 community colleges to evaluate three essential outcomes: passing a developmental course in the first year, passing a gatekeeper course in the first year, and persistence in the degree program. They then pinpointed a set of practices that were meaningfully more likely to positively impact one or more of the target outcomes.

Figure 6. High-impact community college practices.
The High-Impact Practices: The 13 high-impact practices, as well as the structured group learning experiences classification, are described below.
Orientation may be a single event or an extended structured
experience to familiarize students with one or more of the following: college resources, services, policies, and organizations; building a network of support; and developing an academic plan and individual goals.
Supplemental instruction typically involves a regularly scheduled, supplemental class for a portion of students enrolled in a larger course section. Supplemental instruction may be taught by the class instructor or a trained assistant, often a former student who was successful in the class.Accelerated courses or fast-track programs in developmental education are learning experiences designed to help students move more quickly through developmental coursework in order to move on to college-level work.
A first-year experience or freshman seminar is a course or a combination of in-class and out-of-class activities offered to students during their first term or first year at college.Tutoring is academic assistance that is provided outside of class, either in a one-on-one setting, in a group setting, or via technology.Experiential (hands-on) learning—such as internships, co-op experience, apprenticeships, field experience, clinical assignments, and community-based projects—immerses students in content, and it encourages them to make connections and forge relationships.
A learning community involves two or more linked courses that a group of students take together.Academic goal setting and planning creates a clear path to help students reach their educational goals. Defining this path is the work of academic goal setting and planning.A student success course is a course specifically designed to teach skills and strategies to help students succeed in college (e.g., time management, study skills, and test-taking skills).

One successful intervention that bundles together many of these practices is the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), developed in the City University of New York (CUNY) and eventually expanded to three Ohio community colleges. The ASAP study, a randomized  control trial of 896 students at CUNY and 1,501 students in Ohio, provided tuition assistance and wraparound supports such as tutoring, career services, and textbook vouchers.      

The program delivered outstanding results: 55% of CUNY students graduated with a two-year or four-year degree versus 44% of the control group. The Ohio results were even more compelling, with the ASAP program improving two-year graduation rates by 15.6% and four-year registrations by 5.7% at a 0.01 significance level.

To scale these programs, the federal government should allow grants to be used for wraparound supports with strong research-based impacts, potentially drawing from (or in addition to) the $500 million community college discretionary fund in the president’s budget. Ideally, this would be done via competitive applications with an emphasis on programs that target disadvantaged communities and focus on high-quality degree programs. Moreover, this could be set up via matching funds that incentivize state and local governments as well as philanthropic players to play a larger role in creating wraparound supports and administrative structures that would allow community colleges to better provide these services in the long term. 

Recommendation 5. Federal, state, and local policymakers, working with large grant-writing foundations, should focus funding on interventions proven to result in higher graduation, transfer, and employment rates. As a first step, Congress should pass laws mandating the creation of datasets that merge educational and earnings data, which will help decision-makers and funders link dollars to outcomes.

Despite the success of programs such as ASAP and Project Quest, there is still a dearth of high-quality studies on comprehensive interventions. This is partly because there are relatively few such programs to begin with. Nonetheless, early results seem promising. The question is, how can we ensure that programs are properly measured in order to enable further public, private, and nonprofit financing?

Unlike ASAP and Project Quest, most programs do not rigorously track data over a long period. For instance, the American Association of Community Colleges provides a repository of data on community college apprenticeships, broken out at an aggregate level as well as by school partner. However, a closer look shows that the public-facing dataset is missing rudimentary information on the number of apprentices who complete their programs, what types of programs have a high rate of completers versus non completers, and employment outcomes, let alone richer datasets that include background demographic information, longitudinal earnings tracking, and other pieces of information essential to constructing statistically rigorous studies of student ROI.

Sample output of community college apprenticeship data, taken from Los Angeles Community College.

While there may be more privately held data in their database, the paucity of available public information is indicative of the state of data tracking for community colleges and work-based training programs. In general, institutions are not sufficiently funded to continue data tracking beyond completion or departure, leaving enormous gaps.     

One way to get around this issue is to require more rigorous data collection and longitudinal tracking, leveraging existing administrative data where possible. Fortunately, there is already a bill on the floor, called the College Transparency Act, which includes provisions requiring the Education Department to match student-level data with IRS tax data to measure post completion employment rates as well as mean and median earnings by institution, program of study, and credential level. Congress should pass the act, which enjoys bipartisan support. Passing the College Transparency Act would create the much-needed foundation to rigorously compare ROI and enable greater accountability for community colleges and higher ed writ large.


Designed correctly, community colleges can be fonts of economic opportunity, especially for individuals from underserved backgrounds whose primary goal is to enter into a well-paying role upon program completion. By collecting high-quality data, focusing on degrees with strong outcomes, providing quality work-based training, and funding wraparound supports and tuition assistance, community colleges can be much stronger, more effective engines for students and local communities. While these reforms will take time and energy from public policymakers, community college leaders, and employers, they have the potential to deliver compelling outcomes and are worth the investment.

Frequently Asked Questions
What are some possible consequences of refocusing community colleges on fewer degrees and more career-oriented certificates?

Certain constituents would be negatively impacted: for example, high school dual enrollment students would have fewer options for advanced course offerings, and students who want a physics, biology, economics, or similar degree would need to choose a four-year university. On the other hand, this is likely a healthy outcome. Academically gifted high school students could take AP courses in person at their high school or virtually, while liberal arts students would end up at four-year institutions where there is an appropriate amount of time to master the subject matter and the degree ROI is clearer.

What wraparound supports were included in the Ohio ASAP intervention? What was its cost efficacy?

The Ohio ASAP program included the following elements:

  • Tutoring: Students were required to attend tutoring if they were taking developmental (remedial) courses, on academic probation, or identified as struggling by a faculty member or adviser.

  • Career services: Students were required to meet with campus career services staff or participate in an approved career services event once per semester.

  • Tuition waiver: A tuition waiver covered any gap between financial aid and college tuition and fees.
    Monthly incentive: Students were offered a monthly incentive in the form of a $50 gas/grocery gift card, contingent on participation in program services.

  • Textbook voucher: A voucher covered textbook costs.

  • Course enrollment: Blocked courses and consolidated schedules held seats for program students in specific sections of courses during the first year.

  • First-year seminar: New students were required to take a first-year seminar (or “success course”) covering topics such as study skills and note-taking.

  • Full-time enrollment: Students were required to attend college full-time during the fall and spring semesters and were encouraged to enroll in summer classes.

Although the program cost an additional $5,500 in direct costs per student (and a further $2,500 because students took more courses and degrees), the total cost per degree attained decreased because the program had a significant positive impact on graduation rates. Degree attainment is an essential key performance indicator because there are large differences in economic ROI for graduates and nongraduates, especially at community colleges.

Greater experimentation with publicly funded wraparounds, including greater uptake of entitlements for which students might be eligible, will help policymakers identify the most impactful components of the ASAP intervention. Over time, this will reduce direct costs while continuing to improve the cost per degree attained.

What wraparound supports were provided by the Project Quest intervention?

Project Quest included the following wraparound supports:

  • Financial assistance to cover tuition and fees for classes, books, transportation, uniforms, licensing exams, and tutoring.

  • Remedial instruction in math and reading to help individuals pass placement tests.

  • Counseling to address personal and academic concerns and provide motivation and emotional support.

  • Referrals to outside agencies for assistance with utility bills, childcare, food, and other services as well as direct financial assistance with other supports on an as-needed basis.

  • Weekly meetings that focused on life skills, including time management, study skills, critical thinking, and conflict resolution.

  • Job placement assistance, including help with writing résumés and interviewing, as well as referrals to employers that are hiring.

What results did FAME achieve? How does it compare to Project Question and other more fulsome interventions?

A study by Brookings and Opportunity America of graduates between 2010 and 2017 showed dramatic increases in five-year post completion wages (almost $100,000 for FAME graduates versus slightly over $50,000 for non-FAME participants). Much of the earnings impact can be attributed to differences in graduation rates: 80% of FAME participants graduate, compared to 30% elsewhere. It should be noted that FAME was not a randomized control trial (unlike Project Quest) but rather a match-paired study with a FAME participant and a “similar” individual, and data was only available for 24 of the 143 FAME participants at the five-year postgraduation mark. Nonetheless, research clearly shows that corporations, workforce development agencies, and community colleges can pair the best of Project Quest and FAME (the wraparound support provided by Quest, the broad and high-quality training in FAME, and the focus on high-demand roles in both) to optimize students’ outcomes.

What are some programs that fund apprenticeships and work-based learning in community colleges?

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) youth apprenticeship and Perkins V programs have appropriated funding that could be used to expand work-based training for community college students. For 2022–2023, Congress appropriated $933 million for youth activities under WIOA, while Perkins V provides roughly $1.4 billion in state formula grants for youth and adult training. However, 75% of WIOA funding goes to out-of-school youth, while Perkins funding covers a wide range of career and technical education programs across secondary, postsecondary, and adult learning. Either program could administer additional funding focused on work-based learning tied to a community college degree, but Congress should appropriate or divert funds to serve these needs. Philanthropic funds could also play a role, especially in funding wraparound supports and administrative expenses, but centralized public funding is needed to ensure appropriate funding and rollout.

How does work affect community college students’ academic attainment?

Contrary to popular belief, working while going to community college does not necessarily detract from student performance. Researcher Mina Dadgar pulled over 40,000 community college student records from the state of Washington and linked them to tax data. Although work did have a statistically significant negative impact on quarterly credits earned and GPA, it does not have a practically significant negative effect on student outcomes.

From the regression analysis above, we can see that each additional hour of work reduces the quarterly credits earned by .065 credits and grade point average (GPA) by roughly .005 points. Assuming that a student works 15 hours per week, the student would be expected to take one less credit per quarter, or three credits assuming that they are enrolled throughout the year. This is, in effect, one class per year, which while not negligible is not a major loss to academic attainment. Similarly, working 15 hours per week would predict a GPA decline of about .06 points—again, not a substantial effect on academic performance.

Besides grants, how can philanthropies and other capital providers get involved in funding high-quality community college interventions?

One promising structure is the social impact bond (sometimes referred to as pay for success). In this model, private investors provide upfront capital to social intervention programs and are repaid if certain performance targets are met. Although establishing the proper baseline can be challenging, the contract involves payment for reducing the overall cost of service (for instance, interventions that proactively reduce recidivism or hospital visits for chronic disease).

Existing programs focus on the financial returns of “investing” in students’ training and upskilling: for instance, impact financier Social Finance and coding bootcamp General Assembly launched a career impact bond that has funded over 800 underserved individuals seeking a credential in technology. However, there is the potential for much broader assessments of economic value that increase the appeal of comprehensive wraparound solutions. In the case of workforce training, the ideal program design might involve an assessment of the overall reduction in social services associated with individuals trapped in poverty (for instance, increased healthcare costs or extended social services provision) as well as the increase in economic activity and tax receipts from a higher-paying job.

As a result, these types of targets encourage more holistic interventions such as the ones we see in the ASAP and Project Quest programs because investors and program managers benefit from students’ long-term success, not just their short-term success. This also incentivizes rigorous data tracking, which in the long term will provide critical information on intervention packages that have the strongest positive impact while weeding out those that are not as effective in improving outcomes.