Community colleges boost graduates’ wages, power local economies

It pays to go to IVCC, and an education here just keeps on giving.

A study commissioned by the Illinois Community College Board found that IVCC and its sister colleges are vital engines for their local economies with effects that ripple beyond individual students.

For students, degrees or certificates propel them to better jobs and higher wages and – as wage earners – they pay billions of dollars in state and federal taxes.

Community colleges are one of a region’s largest employers. Taxes and purchases by the system’s 34,000 employees power local economies, and college operations and capital improvement projects generate jobs beyond the campus borders.

The study, prepared by the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University for the community college governing board, uses employment and wage data in tracking students’ incomes and outcomes over a 12-year period beginning in 2000.

The study found that graduates can expect to earn more in their careers than someone who has not completed a community college program – but IVCC graduates got a bigger boost even than their peers. They can expect to earn $882,000, or 68 percent, more over a 40-year career. By comparison, community college graduates can expect to earn $570,000 – 44 percent – more.

College President Jerry Corcoran credits a tight match to regional employment needs. “We don’t just put out programs willy-nilly. We’re in touch with local employers, so if a student does invest in a certificate or associate degree program, we can be sure there are adequate openings and reasonable pay and that local employers are ready to fill those openings.”

Investing in an IVCC education gives better returns than the stock market or real estate, the study determined. In return for a $34,600 investment (two years of tuition, fees and wages they could have earned), an IVCC student would expect a 29 percent rate of return – double that of the state, where a student invested an average of $43,000.

“In other words, if a student put $34,600 in an investment that returned 40 annual payments equivalent to the earnings gains from an associate degree, they would earn interest at a rate of 29 percent,” the study explained.

Even on the heels of rising tuition, Corcoran still believes community college is a good deal “when you look at the lifetime gain and do the math.”

Community college students paid more than $17 billion in state and federal taxes between 2003 and 2012 — $200 million of that from IVCC students.

Community colleges supplied the workforce across the state. Some 26 percent of all workers in 2012 had attended a community college during the previous 10 years, and more than 70 percent of employers had hired a community college student during that time.

Most IVCC graduates – and community college grads in general — stay here. Nine out of 10 local graduates were employed in the state five years later. Corcoran said he hopes that knowing how vital students’ economic contribution is will convince the state Legislature to restore education funding.

IV reflects statewide averages in that its students are younger and more ethnically diverse. More women enrolled, and they accounted for nearly 60 percent of the program completions in 2012.

More than half the community college enrollees come directly out of high school.

“We used to think we were doing good tapping 30 percent of our local high school graduates. Now we’re doing better, more like 36 or 38 percent, and IV is the top choice for more of the top students in their class. The word is out,” Corcoran said.
The number of students over age 24 declined, but Corcoran believes that may change as more jobs in Illinois demand a post-secondary degree or credential.

While the fastest-growing group of enrollees across the state prepared to transfer to a four-year university, more IV enrollees wanted to get a job after community college. The number of IV students earning occupational certificates or pursuing occupational/technical instruction outpaced the number of transfer hopefuls.

“Traditionally, if you didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, you didn’t ‘go to college,’” Corcoran said. “Over the last few years there’s been more emphasis on career and technical training. Now you can complete a program for a certificate in one or two years, be very well educated, and get a good-paying job.”

Many career programs are also structured so a student can attain certificates or degrees which lead to jobs, or continue in a baccalaureate program.

Though the Illinois Valley has seen its high school graduation rate and degree attainment rate eclipsed by other regions while its unemployment rate outpaced its neighbors, the area is recovering, Corcoran said. To enhance its appeal, IV is working with nearby universities to offer three-year programs “at an IVCC price” before a seamless transfer to a university for the last year.

The community college system also will appeal to the legislature to be allowed to offer full baccalaureate degrees in some programs, he said. “It’s clearly a trend nationwide.”

The appeal of online courses is also widening, the study found. Some 1,200 students – 17 percent of IV’s enrollees – took at least one online course for credit in 2012.