AEFP 45th Annual Conference

Toward a Meaningful Impact through Research, Policy & Practice

March 19-21, 2020

California's career education programs and their effects on long-term wage outcomes, a regional examination

Courtney Lee, Public Policy Institute of California,

Career education (also known as career technical education, or CTE) programs at California’s community colleges provide a critical component to the state’s labor market. The programs have the ability to not only improve students’ economic well-being through earning middle-income wages, but also address employers’ workforce needs. However, some regions have greater demand for middle-skilled (less than bachelor’s but more than high school attainment) jobs than others which require at least a bachelor’s degree, and high job growth does not always mean high earnings for middle-skilled workers evenly across the state. This study extends work of an earlier paper on a statewide view of career pathways and economic mobility at California’s community colleges, with an emphasis on regional outcomes.
In particular, this study quantifies the wage returns of sub-baccalaureate certificates for students who earn the same category of credential, but across different regions across California. This study uses student-level longitudinal data combining California’s Community Colleges with statewide earnings data, and employs a multiple regression framework to analyze returns to awards. To estimate the returns we use student fixed effects to compare an individual’s earnings before and after earning an award. In addition to the student fixed effects models, this study explores the wage returns by region, program type, and award length as well as demographic characteristics such as age to determine whether the returns of awards differ within these subgroups.
Some of California’s economic regions have higher costs of living than less costly regions of the state, so this study uses measures of earnings levels for occupation groups based on poverty thresholds created by the California Poverty Measure (CPM). The CPM thresholds vary across counties and regions to reflect the differences in cost of living across the state, and using the CPM enables comparability of the wage outcomes of the career education awards across the state.
Findings suggest that there exist differences in wage outcomes in program type and by award length. For example, health awards show relatively large returns across program length, whereas engineering and information technology programs show smaller returns. Even when adjusting for regional cost of living, differences by program length and award type continue to persist, suggesting that wage outcomes carry more weight in regions with greater middle-skill demand. For example, the Inland Empire region has greater middle-skill demand than the neighboring Orange County region; for students who earn an associate’s degree in the engineering fields, the wage returns increase 13.3% in the Inland Empire as compared to 9.8% in Orange County. These findings carry implications for areas outside of California, which may closely resemble one of the state’s many regions, especially as these areas consider developing middle-skilled workforces earning at least livable incomes.



I like how you've included a way to download the full paper. In the background, you mention that "some regions have greater demand for middle-skilled jobs than others which require at least a bachelor’s degree". Thank you for sharing your work! If you have any questions about my comments, you can reach me at is a little confusing: is the issue that some middle-skilled jobs require a BA and others don't, and in some regions, the middle-skilled jobs for which there is most demand require a BA? And thus in those regions a community college degree, even if it's an a middle-skill job area, doesn't benefit students as much? The maps are great - but I was wondering if the color-coding reversed on the % some college map? I would have expected that the areas where the threshold for non-poverty wages are lowest also had lower % with some college, but it seems to be the opposite. Thank you for sharing your work! If you have any questions about my comments, you can reach me at

This study is important to all states. Middle skill jobs are essential to the economy and can be a stepping stone to higher levels of employment and higher wages through baccalaureate completion (employer sponsored in many cases). I wonder if PPIC is willing to share the how the dataset was constructed? I have doc students who may be interested in this topic for the state of Mississippi. If you are able, please email me at

This is an incredibly important question that you're looking at. Here in Maryland we know that our industries are regionalized, so doing a similar analysis would be quite valuable to us. It's important not just to community colleges but in the K-12 space too, since we offer support to school systems as they provide CTE that is hopefully targeted to local demand *and* (as shown by your paper) ideally an opportunity for increased success later on. (Here in MD, many community college students begin their path to certification in high school.) I wonder if the variability within the business and engineering programs has something to do with the type of program being offered in that region? Perhaps the business programs in wealthier areas like the Bay area are "executive professional" degrees (meaning the student is likely already working at a high-wage job), perhaps with a guarantee from their employer that if they get the degree, they will receive a raise. In contrast, the business programs in less-professional areas may be for students looking to "break into the business world" and thus have a more unreliable return. Thank you for sharing your work! -Dara Shaw (

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