Community college boosts employment among Black and Hispanic students, study finds

A new study found that attending community colleges like Bunker Hill Community College can boost earnings and employment opportunities across demographic groups, specifically for students of color. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Black and Hispanic students enjoy higher employment levels than people in other demographic groups who complete a community college degree, but many drop out of their studies before they can realize those gains, according to a new study.

Organizers of the report, released Thursday by The Boston Foundation and MassINC, say the findings make a strong case both for the importance of funding for community college and for the value they can hold for people in communities that are underserved by traditional higher education.

“Low-income and underrepresented minorities typically come from high schools that make them less academically prepared to enter the job market,” said Alicia Modestino, lead author of the study and an economist and a professor at Northeastern University. “If they can attend a community college then they can get a much higher return than a higher-income individual who’s had better academic opportunities.”

The study, which tracked thousands of high school graduates in Massachusetts between 2010 and 2018, found that Black and Hispanic students are twice as likely as their white counterparts to attend community college. While these students are only about half as likely to complete their degrees, they receive a boost of 7 to 10 percentage points in employment and slightly stronger earnings gains when they do.

The findings come as Massachusetts community colleges face dwindling enrollment and mounting budget cuts.

Last fall, Massachusetts community college enrollment dropped by about 11 percent, or 8,600 students, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. The declines were steeper — about a third — among Black and Latino students.

Results from the study released Thursday also show different earning patterns for men and women in community college.

Men who complete an associate’s degree or certificate earn between $5,500 and $9,000 more per year compared to male peers who only completed high school. But men who don’t finish their studies see no difference in their wages.

Women earn $1,550 more per year just for attending community college, even if they don’t graduate. But they can get as much as to $8,000 more per year upon completing their programs.

Modestino said women appear to gain a bit more in earnings overall after community college because of the dynamics of the labor market for people without post-secondary degrees. Men often have more lucrative job options such as construction roles that are not as commonly filled by women.

Women who attended community college directly after high school for a health-related degree earned 61 percent more than women with only a high school diploma, the study said. Men with health-related degrees saw a 25 percent increase over their male peers who had only a high school education.

But the report noted that not all degrees offer a boost in income.

While healthcare and STEM-related studies brought significant gains across the board, men with a liberal arts degree earned 10 percent less on average than their peers with just a high school diploma. (Women with liberal arts degrees made more than their high-school-only peers.)

“There’s huge variation, and that’s something that students should know, parents should know, guidance counselors should know, and states should know,” she said.

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