The Return to a Sub-Baccalaureate Education: The Effects of Schooling, Credentials and Program of Study on Economic Outcomes

Bailey, Thomas R.; Kienzl, Gregory S.; Marcotte, David

Over the last 20 years, technological changes in the workplace have placed considerable pressure on the U.S. educational system to adequately prepare students for occupations that increasingly require specific skills. However, certain educators and policy-makers have raised the question of whether vocational education at the high school level, with its focus on immediately entering the workforce after high school, adequately prepares students for college. At the postsecondary level, the debate has centered on whether vocational education restricts access to a four-year college, which may hamper future earnings. This report estimates the returns to a sub-baccalaureate education. The analyses emphasize the effect of a student's program of study, the amount of schooling accumulated with and without attaining a degree, and the type of credential earned. We test whether the earnings of degree attainers are significantly larger than those of similar students with the same amount of postsecondary education but no credential. We also examine whether economic gains from occupational education are realized not only for students who concentrated on vocational education in high school but also for special subpopulations such as older students, racial-ethnic minorities, and academically or economically disadvantaged students.


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Community College Research Center
Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University
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April 4, 2014