Salary tracker shows earning power of community college grads – often more than graduate degree holders

With the right major, California community college graduates can out-earn workers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees – often by a lot.
Salary Surfer, an online consumer guide released by the Community College Chancellor’s Office Wednesday, lets prospective students and everyone else look up the median earnings for graduates of the 179 most popular subjects at community college campuses and check to see which colleges offer those programs.
The interactive data system is the first of its kind in California to track salaries of actual community college students to see how much they’re earning two and five years after graduation and compare that with what they earned two years before graduation.  Several other states, notably Florida and Virginia, track graduates of two- and four-year colleges.  Salary Surfer adds another component to the state community college systems’ effort to improve student services and success rates. In April, the chancellor’s office went online with a new, user-friendly version of its scorecard, which allows the public to track campus measures such as graduation and transfer rates, while giving colleges more information on where their students need intervention to help them succeed.
View of the pull down menu on Salary Surfer showing the overall subjects. Within these are 179 individual courses of study. (Source: California Community College Chancellor’s Office). Click to enlarge.The highest-paying fields don’t necessarily require a two-year associate’s degree, the guide shows. Five years after earning a certificate in electrical systems and power transmission, the people who repair and maintain electric lines and test power meters earn a median salary of more than $123,000 a year. Nurses, physicians’ assistants and fire academy graduates took home a median salary between $78,000 and about $96,000. Certificate programs can require as few as six units (two classes), or as many as 68 units (two or more years) for nursing, which requires significant knowledge and skills.
To put that in perspective, the median annual wages for a worker with a master’s degree is $60,200 – with political scientist at the top with a median income of more than $107,000 a year – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tap into Salary Surfer and it shows about 45 percent of community college graduates earned more than $54,000 a year.
“The motivation behind this is very simple; we want to restore the access and we want to dramatically improve success of students in our colleges,” said Community College Chancellor Brice Harris during a telephone interview with reporters.
In recent years, as EdSource Today has reported, enrollment has dropped by 470,000 students in the 112-campus system as a result of budget cuts that forced campuses to reduce the number of classes offered. Even though the Legislature approved a budget last week allocating more than $200 million in additional funding for community colleges next year, the perception remains that the schools are the weaker link in California’s public higher education system.
Salary Surfer should help change that image, said David Rattray, senior vice president of education and workforce development for the Los
Chemistry student at San Diego Mesa College. According to Salary Surfer, community college chemistry majors earn a median salary of $51,453 five years after graduation. Source: California Community College website. (Click to enlarge)Angeles Chamber of Commerce. “I think the power of this tool is the 360-degree reality to it. Markets work better when there’s perfect transparency or knowledge by all of the players in that market.”
Salary Surfer is another piece of the community college systems’ effort to improve student services and success rates. In April, the chancellor’s office went online with a new, user-friendly version of its scorecard, which allows the public to track campus measures such as graduation and transfer rates, while giving colleges more information on where their students need intervention to help them succeed.
Salary Surfer also provides a strong incentive for students to stay in school, according to community college officials.
“We think students are going to look at these tools and it’s going to help keep them in class, keep them focused on their goal because they can see that if they do stay true to their educational goals that there will be a payoff at the end,” Harris said.
How it works
The interactive program uses Social Security numbers to link community college graduates with the state Employment Development Department, or EDD. The EDD sends back salary figures for each student for three points in time: two years before the student graduated and two and five years after graduation. Students’ names are not attached to their Social Security numbers in the community college database, officials said; the chancellor’s office receives only the aggregate salary information.
The data isn’t available on an individual campus basis; however, each major does link to every community college that offers that program of study. The survey also does not include all 288 curricular areas in community colleges because there has to be a minimum of 10 graduates for the statistics to be valid. That’s not always the case with some very local certificate programs, said Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications.
“They’re very specific things tied to a local industry,” Feist said. “There’s one up at Butte Community College they refer to as Almond Knockin’; they use tree vibration equipment to harvest from almond trees.”
Other groups that aren’t factored into the wages are graduates who work for the federal government, those in the military and anyone who is still in college, either as a transfer to a four-year school or in another community college program. Vice Chancellor Patrick Perry, who oversaw development of the system, said it still includes information culled from tens of thousands of graduates.
California State University and the University of California also have the ability to match graduates and wages with the EDD, but haven’t done it so far. A spokesperson for UC said they’re currently discussing whether and how they could launch a similar program. Cal State spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp said each campus already shares information on the median income of its graduates on their public good pages, a data mine of demographics, high-demand majors, financial aid, tuition and fees, and pay scale of graduates. He said the community college salary tracker is “an interesting project” that CSU will follow to see what is learned from the data collected.

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