Could the Best Value in Higher Education Be Community College?

The Wall Street Journal reports that while going to college remains a profitable proposition in the long run, value is steadily shifting from four-year degrees to programs offered in community colleges. Although it has been the received wisdom that any four-year degree is valuable, new research shows that unilaterally investing in a bachelor's – without consideration for the merits of the school granting the degree – no longer provides the return on investment it once did.

Choosing a school has become a little easier for students and families now that a number of states publish first-year earnings of graduates from state schools. In some cases, the states publish a breakdown by major as well, and those looking at the data can gain some surprising insights.

For example, in Tennessee, graduates from some community college programs – especially those in technology – can outearn holders of bachelor's degrees in the very same field.

Take graduates in health professions from Dyersburg State Community College. They not only finish two years earlier than their counterparts at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but they also earn $5,300 more, on average, in their first year after graduation.

In Virginia, graduates with technical degrees from community colleges make $20,000 more in the first year after college than do graduates in several fields who get bachelor's degrees. Yet high-school seniors are regularly told that community colleges are for students who can't hack it on a four-year campus.

And that is without taking cost into account. Considering that community college programs charge a fraction of what a four-year school charges, the difference in value can be immense. In addition, community college graduates enter the workforce two years earlier than their peers who choose to enroll in a four-year school, padding their overall earning advantage.

Earning potential in the first year post-graduation isn't the only thing to consider when choosing schools. Community colleges also tend to have an advantage when it comes to the amount of student loans graduates carry when they leave. Comparing education choices isn't a straight-forward proposition, but the U.S. Department of Education recently released two tools to make the job easier for families.

The U.S. Education Department's College Scorecard website helps you figure out where to get "the most bang for your educational buck" by compiling federal data collected from colleges. from the Chronicle of Higher Education allows for quick and easy comparisons between colleges on measures families should weigh during their search. It includes early-career salaries for college graduates from, which are self-reported by users of the site.

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