Community colleges serve many functions: a terminal two-year degree leading to better job, a stepping-stone to a four-year college degree, a chance to brush up on needed skills while not necessarily completing a degree, and a chance to pursue interests to enhance one’s life. Here, I focus on just one of these purposes: how does the choice of major in a two-year community college degree affect future earnings.

It turns out that the answer is mostly determined by the choice of major. Cody Christensen and Lesley J. Turner look at “Student Outcomes at Community Colleges: What Factors Explain Variation in Loan Repayment and Earnings?” (September 2021, Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at Brookings). The horizontal axis of the graph measures “net earnings premium: “Generally speaking, a program’s NEP measures the extent to which former students’ earnings gains are large enough to cover the direct and indirect costs of attending the program.”

As you can see, most majors have a positive net earnings, but not all. The biggest gains seem to be for majors that teach technical skills. Of course, these figures represent average gains across majors, when in fact each major will produce a range of outcomes–some higher and some lower than the average.

When looking at the economic payoff of a community college degree, a common question is whether the differences show here reflect choice of major, or whether they reflect the socioeconomic patterns of students choosing those majors. The answer seems to be that while socioeconomic factors do matter, choice of major is the big difference-maker. The authors write:

[W]e examine the program-, institution-, and state-level correlates of community college student outcomes, using program-level data on post-college earnings and loan repayment for more than 1,200 community colleges. We find that student demographics are correlated with net earnings and loan repayment, largely because programs that enroll more underrepresented minority and female students have worse outcomes. Student demographics explain a relatively small share of the variation in earnings and repayment. In contrast, field of study explains most of the variation in net earnings across programs and much of the variation in loan repayment. Moreover, after controlling for field of study, we find a positive association between the share of students in a program who are underrepresented minorities and net earnings, suggesting that programs that enroll more Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be in fields that lead to smaller earnings gains. Finally, we show that institutions that enroll the largest shares of minority students tend to offer fewer programs with high earning premia and more seats in programs that have lower net earnings, on average.

I’m a fan of expanding the governmental commitment to community colleges. A couple of years ago, I mentioned a more fleshed-out proposal for supporting community colleges that would cost $22 billion annually–which is more-or-less a rounding error to the spending totals being proposed in Congress these days. But this evidence emphasizes that it’s not just about getting more students through any two-year degree; it’s about being clear with students about the typical outcomes for different majors, and about increasing the support for students who might prefer a major more likely to raise future wages.