05/09/2022

Is Community College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis

Written By:

Preston Cooper

Nursing and mechanic programs yield healthy returns, whereas liberal arts programs do not.

Blog Article
Is Community College Worth It? A Comprehensive Return on Investment Analysis

Key Findings

  • This report estimates return on investment (ROI) for nearly 17,000 associate degrees and certificates, defined as the increase in lifetime earnings minus the costs of the degree or certificate.
  • For students who graduate on time, the median associate degree has an ROI of $167,000. But accounting for low completion rates at associate degree-granting institutions reduces median ROI to just $22,000.
  • Associate degree programs in registered nursing and mechanic and repair technologies usually have high ROI, while graduates of liberal arts programs generally come out underwater.
  • Undergraduate certificate programs produce median ROI of $115,000, which drops to $53,000 after adjusting for completion rates. Strong certificate programs include precision metal working and licensed practical nursing; the weakest is cosmetology.

Executive Summary

In his 2022 State of the Union address, President Biden called public community colleges “America’s best-kept secret.” Community colleges and other fewer-than-four-year institutions in the private sector offer a variety of credentials below the bachelor’s degree level, including postsecondary certificates and associate degrees. Many tout these credentials as low-cost alternatives to a bachelor’s degree. Indeed, some associate degrees and certificates offer excellent financial payoffs. But many others do little to increase their students’ earnings capacity.

This report presents estimates of return on investment (ROI) for over 10,000 associate degrees and 6,000 undergraduate certificates. In financial markets, ROI measures the profitability of an investment relative to its cost. This study defines the ROI of a degree or certificate as the increase in lifetime earnings a student can expect from that credential, minus the direct and indirect costs of obtaining it.

The median associate degree is worth $167,000 for students who graduate on time. Associate degrees in registered nursing and mechanic and repair technologies often deliver considerably higher ROI. But a majority of two-year degrees in the liberal arts leave students worse off financially than they would have been otherwise.

Certificate programs exhibit similar variation in financial returns. Programs in licensed practical nursing and vehicle maintenance and repair deliver returns on par with some bachelor’s degrees. But certificates in cosmetology almost universally fail to give students a positive return on investment.

Overall, 29 percent of associate degrees and 35 percent of certificates do not produce a positive return on investment, assuming students finish their programs on time. When accounting for the risk that some students will take longer time to finish or not finish at all, the share of nonperforming associate degrees and certificates rises to four in ten.

The ROI estimates presented in this report can help students make better decisions regarding higher education. They may also be of interest to other stakeholders, including policymakers, trustees, and institutions themselves. The full dataset, including measures of ROI for nearly 17,000 sub-baccalaureate programs, is available here.

Introduction

America’s two-year colleges offer a variety of credentials below the bachelor’s degree level. These sub-baccalaureate credentials include short-duration postsecondary certificates and two-year associate degrees. These credentials are often touted as an option for students seeking a faster and cheaper alternative to a four-year degree. But are they effective at increasing students’ earnings? Moreover, does that increase in earnings justify their costs?

This report seeks to determine the net economic value of nearly 17,000 associate degrees and certificates by calculating the return on investment of each. ROI is equal to the financial benefit of these credentials (the increase in earnings) minus the costs (tuition and lost labor market income while enrolled).

The analysis calculates ROI for over 10,000 associate degrees. These programs usually last two years and are generally hosted at America’s public community colleges, though private institutions and four-year schools offer a handful of associate degrees as well. Some associate degrees are intended as preparation for careers in fields like nursing, business, and culinary arts. Others are designed as the foundation for transfer to a bachelor’s degree program.

The report also looks at ROI for over 6,000 postsecondary certificates at the undergraduate level. The vast majority of certificates are offered at proprietary colleges, but public community colleges also host their share of certificates. Certificates are almost always vocationally oriented programs like cosmetology, vehicle maintenance and repair, and licensed practical nursing. Many programs are offered at dedicated institutions like beauty schools.

Like all other arenas of higher education, the return to sub-baccalaureate credentials is not consistent across fields of study. Programs like nursing and vehicle repair are extremely valuable; many generate higher ROI than the typical bachelor’s degree. But thousands of other programs, especially those in cosmetology and the liberal arts, leave students worse off than if they had never pursued postsecondary education at all.

Overall, 29 percent of associate degree programs and 35 percent of certificate programs have negative ROI, meaning that the typical student is worse off financially for having pursued one of these credentials. Those numbers assume that students finish their programs on time. But many community colleges and for-profit schools have low completion rates. When accounting for the chance that students might drop out before finishing their programs, the share of nonperforming programs rises to 42 percent for associate degrees and 39 percent for certificates.

This analysis builds on previous work that the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity has published on the ROI of bachelor’s degrees and graduate degrees. Those reports found that the median bachelor’s degree has ROI of $129,000 after adjusting for completion rates, but this varies by field of study. The same variation is present for graduate degrees: high-value programs like law and medicine usually pay off, but over 40 percent of master’s degrees show negative ROI.

Sub-baccalaureate credentials are often promoted as less-expensive alternatives to bachelor’s degrees. President Biden calls community colleges “America’s best-kept secret.” But the returns to sub-baccalaureate education depend on field of study, and policymakers should be careful about promoting these programs without proper qualification. Just like bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees, some associate degrees and certificates are immensely valuable while others aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

Associate degrees are also sometimes viewed as a stepping-stone to the bachelor’s degree. It is common advice for students to complete the first two years of their education at an inexpensive community college and then transfer to a four-year school. The ROI estimates in this report, however, consider returns on the associate degree alone. In other words, the calculations assume that students earn an associate degree but don’t continue their education further. While the possibility of earning a higher degree is certainly something students should consider when deciding on an educational pathway, they should know the completion rate for the community college-to-bachelor’s track is low.

When students make informed decisions, associate degrees and certificates can be an excellent choice for those who want to increase their earnings potential with a relatively short educational commitment. Moreover, sub-baccalaureate credentials are a key avenue for society to educate workers for the skilled jobs in the U.S. economy. But students need the right data to make informed educational choices and avoid programs that don’t deliver on the economic mobility they promise.

How much do people with associate degrees and certificates earn?

People with sub-baccalaureate credentials do not earn quite as much as four-year college graduates. But associate degree holders still earn around 20% more than people with only a high school diploma. Those with some college experience but no degree — a group that includes most undergraduate certificate holders — still earn about 12 percent more than those who never went to college at all. In raw numbers at least, sub-baccalaureate credentials seem to be worth it.

But there’s variation behind the average: Some sub-baccalaureate programs provide students with bachelor’s degree-level earnings; other programs leave their alumni earning less than the typical high school graduate; and associate degrees and certificates can pay off, but not always.

Fortunately, the Department of Education has published a new dataset, the College Scorecard, which reports median earnings for graduates of around 17,000 associate degree and certificate programs. While of great utility to students, the Scorecard has a major limitation: it only reports earnings for students’ first two years after graduation. I therefore use the American Community Survey to extrapolate graduates’ earnings throughout their careers. More details are available in the methodology article accompanying this paper.

When its graduates reach age 35, the median associate degree program yields earnings of $46,200. The median certificate program cashes in at $40,900. But many programs leave their graduates earning much more. Twenty-four percent of associate degrees and 13 percent of certificates produce earnings of $60,000 or more by the time their graduates are 35 years old. Meanwhile, 19 percent of certificates and seven percent of associate degrees leave graduates earning less than $30,000 at the same age.

 

Earnings vary tremendously between different programs at the same institution. Northern Virginia Community College offers 21 different associate degrees with reportable data in the Scorecard. They range from a general social sciences degree (which offers earnings of just $36,800 at age 35) to degrees in dental assisting and dental hygiene (where earnings reach $107,000 by age 35).

Use the searchable table below to find estimated earnings for your college and major at graduation and at age 35.

 

Lifetime earnings by themselves are a useful measure of a program’s value. But we also need a benchmark against which to compare the earnings associated with these credentials. If a graduate of an associate degree or certificate program had never pursued that credential, what would she have earned otherwise? Moreover, what did she have to pay to secure her degree or certificate?

What are the costs (and opportunity costs) of associate degrees and certificates?

Pursuing an associate degree or certificate means spending one to two years in school (and sometimes more). Fortunately for students seeking an associate degree, community colleges are heavily subsidized, meaning direct costs are low. Not only do community colleges have much lower “sticker price” tuition than four-year schools, but students may be eligible for Pell Grants and other financial aid awards which reduce their costs still further.

Tuition, fees, books, and equipment for the median associate degree in the Scorecard amount to $2,600. Thus the direct costs of a two-year associate degree are typically around $5,200. Around a quarter of associate degree programs charge zero net tuition, on average.

Annual tuition for the median certificate program is higher, around $10,500, since these credentials are mainly offered by private institutions. Still, thanks to the shorter time commitment, even pricey certificates are usually cheaper than four-year degrees.

But direct costs are only one part of the ROI calculation. A full accounting of the financial value of a credential must also consider counterfactual earnings, or what each student would have earned in a parallel universe where she did not attend college. Subtracting counterfactual earnings from actual earnings yields the estimated increase in lifetime earnings associated with each credential.

Assessments of ROI often compare the earnings of people with college education to the earnings of people with only a high school diploma. However, people who make the choice to pursue higher education are different from those who choose another path. The two groups have different earnings potential.

It is impossible to peek into parallel universes and observe what each student would have earned had she not pursued a postsecondary credential. However, it is possible to estimate counterfactual earnings for each program based on the observable characteristics of graduates, including demographics, geographic location, family background, and academic ability. The full details of this estimation procedure are available in the methodology.

At age 35, median counterfactual earnings for associate degree graduates are $35,400, compared to realized earnings of $46,200. Therefore, I estimate that the median associate degree boosts its graduates’ earnings by nearly $11,000 at age 35.

Similarly, counterfactual earnings for certificate holders are $33,400 (against actual earnings of $40,900). The typical certificate therefore boosts its completers’ earnings at age 35 by roughly $7,500.

 

Note that these are just the medians for each credential level. The actual gap between realized earnings and counterfactual earnings varies considerably by program. In fact, many programs leave graduates worse off financially than their counterfactual selves, even before accounting for the cost of attending school. For 18 percent of associate degree programs and 27 percent of certificate programs, counterfactual earnings at age 35 are higher than realized earnings.

The counterfactual earnings calculation also provides another important component of the ROI analysis: counterfactual earnings during school. Earning an associate degree or certificate requires spending time out of the labor force — approximately one year for certificates and two years for associate degrees. We need to know the earnings students sacrifice during this time in order to assess whether the credentials they earn pay off. Every year an associate degree student spends in college costs her $23,600 in lost earnings; for certificate students, annual lost earnings are $22,500.

For simplicity and consistency, the estimates in this report assume that students attend their programs full-time and do not work while enrolled. However, a large share of students pursuing sub-baccalaureate credentials attend school part-time and work while they are taking classes. While students who choose this path will not lose as much labor market income while enrolled, it will also take them longer to earn their degree or certificate. Therefore, they will have fewer years to enjoy the boost in earnings associated with the credential. ROI for a part-time student might be higher or lower than ROI for a full-time student in the same program; students considering part-time attendance should keep this in mind.

With estimates of earnings, counterfactual earnings, tuition costs, and lost earnings during school, it is now possible to calculate the return on investment for thousands of associate degree and certificate programs.

ROI for 17,000 associate degrees and certificates

ROI is equal to the present discounted value of the earnings that students with an associate degree or certificate receive over their lifetimes, minus the present discounted value of counterfactual earnings (including earnings while enrolled), minus tuition, fees, books, and equipment. For the initial ROI calculation, I assume students finish their programs on time (one year for certificates and two years for associate degrees).

Consider the associate degree in design and applied arts at Northern Virginia Community College. I estimate that someone with this degree will earn approximately $1.1 million in present value terms over the course of her lifetime. Counterfactual earnings for the typical student in this program (including the two years while enrolled in school) amount to $961,000 in present value terms. Net tuition, fees, books, and equipment for two years are $5,400. The ROI for this program is equal to lifetime earnings minus counterfactual earnings minus direct education costs, or approximately $116,000.

Present value of lifetime earnings with the degree: $1,082,878

Subtract present value of counterfactual lifetime earnings (including earnings while enrolled): $961,007

Subtract present value of tuition, fees, books, and equipment: $5,407

Return on investment (ROI): $116,465

Weighted by student counts, the median associate degree program in the Scorecard yields ROI of $167,000. In other words, the median associate degree is expected to increase its graduates’ lifetime earnings by $167,000, after accounting for tuition and opportunity cost.

But the median conceals a dramatic range of outcomes. Twenty-nine percent of associate degrees have negative ROI, meaning they typically leave their graduates worse off, financially. But an equal number of programs produce ROI above $500,000 — meaning students who earn these degrees can expect to increase their net lifetime income by over half a million dollars.

The most important factor in determining whether an associate degree will pay off is field of study. The associate degree in registered nursing is the most lucrative two-year degree; 99 percent of these programs lead to payoffs of $500,000 or more. Mechanic and repair technologies — including vehicle maintenance and repair, HVAC technology, and electrical maintenance — also post strong results. Seventy-two percent of associate degrees in this category yield a payoff of $250,000 or more.

 

But many associate degree programs fare poorly on ROI. The most popular single associate degree — liberal arts and general studies — is also among the worst for ROI. Over half of associate degrees granted in liberal arts do not yield an economic payoff. Granted, the associate degree in liberal arts is popular as a stepping-stone credential on the road to a bachelor’s degree, which is a potential benefit not considered in the ROI calculation. But students who earn this degree and do not go on to a four-year college are usually worse off.

Degrees in health care account for approximately 40 percent of associate degrees issued. But not all health care degrees are equally valuable. Registered nursing is the gold standard for associate degrees in health care. Degrees in dental hygiene, radiologic technology, and other specialized fields also tend to perform well. But only 55 percent of associate degrees in health and medical administrative services pay off. Among the worst health-related associate degrees are those in massage therapy and somatic bodywork, where 97 percent of credentials have negative ROI.

Certificate programs yield a median ROI of $115,000, and 35 percent of certificates have negative ROI. Much like associate degrees, the value of an undergraduate certificate depends on field of study. Certificates in fields such as vehicle maintenance and repair, precision metal working, and HVAC technologies have almost universally positive returns. Indeed, the vast majority of certificates in these fields produce ROI above $250,000 — putting these trades on par with the average bachelor’s degree.

 

Just under half of undergraduate certificates are in health care fields. Certificates for the training of licensed practical nurses (LPNs) are usually a good bet; around 90 percent yield ROI of $250,000 or more. Certificates for medical assistants, another popular occupation, have much more uneven financial returns: 27 percent of these programs offer no ROI, and another 28 percent have a lifetime payoff below $100,000. Like associate degrees, certificates in massage therapy and somatic bodywork usually have negative ROI.

The most popular single certificate — accounting for 22 percent of all certificates issued — is also one of the worst programs anywhere in higher education, as measured by ROI. Certificates in cosmetology, which include training programs for barbers, hairstylists, makeup artists, and manicurists, yield negative ROI 86 percent of the time. The reasons for this poor performance include not only the cost of these programs (over $10,000 on average), but also the fact that cosmetology graduates tend to earn thousands of dollars less than people with only a high school diploma.

It is key to remember that the estimates reported here are for the median graduate of each program. Some graduates of a program with negative ROI might still reap positive lifetime earnings gains from their education. Conversely, a program with positive ROI might not guarantee positive earnings outcomes for every single graduate. Though outcomes for the median graduate are the best way to analyze the overall worth of an associate degree or certificate, students should remember that exceptions can occur in either direction.

What if some students don’t finish their programs?

For the purposes of calculation, the statistics presented in the previous section rely on the assumption that pursuing an associate degree or certificate is riskless for the student. But in reality, there are significant risks to pursuing sub-baccalaureate credentials: namely, the risk that students will take longer than expected to complete their programs, or not complete at all. At public community colleges, just 42 percent of degree-seeking students earn any sort of credential within six years.

Students who don’t finish their degrees usually fail to realize the earnings benefits associated with those credentials. Moreover, dropouts are at higher risk of student loan default. Students who doubt their ability to finish programs on time — or who may not finish at all — should consider not just the financial value of various degrees, but their chance of on-time graduation.

The median associate degree has an ROI of $167,000 for students who complete on time (in two years). Taking three years to finish reduces median ROI for associate degrees to $133,000; finishing in four years reduces ROI to $102,000. A student who drops out of her associate degree program typically loses $40,000 in tuition payments and foregone earnings.

While field of study is the most important determinant of ROI for students who graduate on time, choice of institution has an impact on how likely students are to complete. Using institutions’ own reported completion outcomes and making appropriate allowances for transfer students, I adjust ROI for each Scorecard program to account for the risk of non-completion or extra years of study.

Low completion rates for associate degree programs have a substantial impact on adjusted ROI. Median ROI for on-time graduates is $167,000, but adjusting for completion rates reduces ROI to $21,800. The share of associate degree programs showing negative ROI rises from 29 percent to 42 percent.

The completion adjustment has a significant impact on the ROI of certain programs. Before the adjustment, 55 percent of programs in liberal arts and English literature have negative ROI; the completion adjustment raises the share of nonperforming programs in these fields to 81 percent. The share of nonperforming associate degrees in business, another popular field, rises from 28 percent to 46 percent.

 

Undergraduate certificates tend to have higher completion rates than associate degrees, thanks to their shorter duration. Still, the completion adjustment reduces median ROI for certificate programs from $115,000 to $53,000. The share of certificate programs with negative ROI rises from 35 percent to 39 percent.

Fortunately, the highest-value certificate programs largely survive the adjustment. More than 95 percent of programs in vehicle maintenance and repair, precision metal working, and licensed practical nursing show positive ROI even after accounting for completion rates. The completion adjustment pushes the share of nonperforming cosmetology programs up from 86 percent to 89 percent.

 

Sub-baccalaureate credentials are stratified by the sector of the institutions offering them. While public community colleges provide most associate degrees, private for-profit institutions disproportionately host certificate programs. Still, students with their minds set on a particular credential have options: there are some associate degree programs at private institutions and certificate programs at public ones.

Students seeking an undergraduate certificate will generally have better luck at public institutions; only 15 percent of certificate programs at public community colleges show negative ROI versus 44 percent at for-profit schools. While public colleges offer fewer certificate programs, they are far more likely to offer training in high-demand fields such as licensed practical nursing and precision metal working. By contrast, a plurality of certificates at for-profit institutions are in cosmetology, a low-earning field.

Returns on associate degrees are somewhat more even across sectors. Forty percent of associate degrees at public colleges show negative ROI, compared to 49 percent of associate degrees at for-profit schools. While hundreds of low-ROI liberal arts programs weigh down the public sector, America’s community colleges also offer a disproportionate number of associate degrees in high-value sub-fields of health care, such as registered nursing. For-profit schools are more concentrated in medium-ROI associate degree programs such as business and medical assisting.

 

Unlike bachelor’s degrees, sub-baccalaureate credentials do not have a “long right tail” of elite programs that offer multimillion-dollar returns. Out of nearly 17,000 associate degree and certificate programs, fewer than 200 have an ROI above $1 million.

Most of these “million-dollar” associate degree and certificate programs are in health care. Registered nursing accounts for 33 percent of million-dollar programs, and licensed practical nursing programs represent another 26 percent. Diagnostic, intervention, and treatment professional programs, such as training for radiologic technologists, account for another 20 percent of million-dollar programs.

Outside of health care, the largest single field of million-dollar sub-baccalaureate credentials is electrical and power transmission installation. Like many other certificate programs, this field often requires an apprenticeship in addition to classroom work, so it may not be appropriate to attribute all the financial return to the postsecondary certificate. Still, for students seeking to maximize the return to postsecondary education, this is an excellent option.

 

Many associate degrees and certificates in the million-dollar club are offered by four-year schools, which may be plugged into wider professional networks that offer higher salaries. Elite schools such as the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania, and Howard University all offer lucrative undergraduate certificate programs out of their colleges of health sciences.

While field of study is generally the most important factor behind ROI, some exceptional institutions buck the trend. For instance, while most liberal arts programs show negative ROI, the City College of San Francisco offers an associate degree in the liberal arts with ROI of nearly $544,000. The New York City-based Lia Schorr Institute offers one of the nation’s most remunerative cosmetology programs, perhaps due to the school’s high completion rate and location in a high-wage city.

A word of caution is in order regarding high-ROI associate degree and certificate programs. Extrapolating Scorecard earnings using American Community Survey data requires assuming that graduates remain in the same relative position on the earnings distribution for their education level throughout their entire careers. In other words, the calculations assume that students who earn at the 95th percentile of associate degree earnings at graduation also earn at the 95th percentile of associate degree earnings for their age group a decade later. In reality, there may be some degree of mean-reversion. While average ROI for associate degrees and certificates is probably reasonably accurate, estimated ROI for top programs may be less precise.

What is ROI relative to the full cost of education?

Public community colleges are heavily subsidized. State and local appropriations reduce the sticker-price tuition that colleges charge, while Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid defray end prices even further. Many community colleges charge zero tuition to the average student, after aid. But providing education is never free; whatever students do not cover must be paid for by taxpayers or third parties.

The median community college spends over $11,000 per full-time equivalent student on education-related expenditures. (Education-related expenditures include spending on instruction and administration, but not dormitories, dining halls, radio stations, or other auxiliary operations.) In-state students cover just $800 of this cost through tuition payments. Private for-profit colleges also spend just over $11,000 per student, but provide no subsidy; tuition is virtually equivalent to education costs.

The ROI figures in the previous sections use net tuition as the main direct cost of college, as students should only care about the costs that they and their families face. But other stakeholders, including policymakers and college administrators, may wish to incorporate the full underlying cost of college into the ROI calculation. Some programs with positive ROI with respect to tuition may see ROI turn negative when accounting for underlying costs.

The median associate degree in the Scorecard has a net financial value of $21,800 when calculating ROI with respect to tuition alone (and adjusting for completion rates). But if we instead calculate ROI with respect to underlying spending, the net value of the median program drops to just $8,200. Median ROI for certificate programs drops from $53,300 to $52,600. As certificates are disproportionately offered at private for-profit colleges, the spending adjustment makes little difference.

Before the spending adjustment, 42 percent of associate degrees have negative ROI; after adjusting for spending the share of nonperforming programs rises to 47 percent. A majority of programs in business and management — a popular associate degree — are negative ROI after the spending adjustment. The spending adjustment also reduces expected payoffs in positive-ROI fields like computer science and medical assisting.

 

For certificates, the spending adjustment leaves the share of nonperforming programs unchanged at 39 percent. The underlying cost of most certificates is already reflected in their high tuition. Another factor at play is these programs’ short duration — as colleges spend less per student to produce certificates, earnings rather than costs are the major determinant of ROI for these credentials.

 

Use the searchable table below to find the ROI of your associate degree or certificate under any of the three specifications: unadjusted, adjusted for completion, or adjusted for completion and spending.

 

The value of sub-baccalaureate credentials is uneven

Community colleges and sub-baccalaureate credentials are often touted as low-cost alternatives to the bachelor’s degree. But like bachelor’s degrees, the value of these credentials is uneven. Some programs leave students worse off financially, while others can increase net lifetime earnings by half a million dollars or more. Much of the return depends on field of study.

The estimates of ROI provided in this report can help students make better decisions regarding postsecondary education. Estimates of ROI for nearly 17,000 associate degrees and certificates are available in the tables above and for download here. The results also offer some broad takeaways for students, policymakers, and the public.

A stark divide exists among certificate programs. Undergraduate certificates in some fields — especially maintenance and repair technologies, precision metal working, and licensed practical nursing — offer excellent financial rewards. Many of these certificates offer stronger ROI than the median bachelor’s degree. The skilled trades offer several lucrative alternatives to a four-year college education.

But many other certificate programs — most notably cosmetology — perform abysmally on ROI. Some certificate programs place their former students on career tracks where they will earn much less than the typical high school graduate. While policymakers and career advisors are often justified in pointing students towards the trades as an alternative to traditional college, not all trades are equally promising.

Associate degree programs suffer from low completion rates. Many associate degree programs — especially those in registered nursing — offer good returns on paper. But that strong ROI is undermined by low completion rates, which reduce the expected value of these credentials. The share of associate degrees which show positive ROI drops from 71 percent to 58 percent after adjusting for completion rates.

Associate degrees in the liberal arts theoretically form a good foundation for transfer to a bachelor’s degree program. However, the share of students who start at a community college and successfully complete a four-year degree is low. Students in liberal arts programs are usually left with negative ROI if they do not pursue further education, even if they complete the associate degree. College counselors should be cautious about recommending this path to their students.

Programs in health care offer strong ROI—usually. Health care is a growth industry that is expected to need more employees as the population ages. Demand for “middle-tier” health care workers who need more than a high school education but less than a bachelor’s degree to do their jobs is exceptionally strong. Sub-baccalaureate credentials can help meet that demand. Many of the best associate degree and certificate programs are in health care fields like registered nursing and licensed practical nursing.

But not all health care programs offer positive ROI: credentials in health services administration and massage therapy usually don’t pay off, along with a large minority of medical assistant training programs. Students interested in a health care career should know that there are many different pathways available to them. But the financial rewards of these pathways differ substantially.

The estimates of ROI presented in this report can empower young people and their families to make more informed decisions about their education. Like all other sectors of higher education, community colleges and other institutions offering sub-baccalaureate programs are sometimes worth it. With the right information, students can leverage America’s wealth of associate degree and certificate options to their greatest advantage.