Education, Jobs

The impact of community colleges on employment growth in rural U.S. counties

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Last updated: November 28, 2012

Colorado Community College, Fort Morgan (Wikimedia)
Colorado Community College (Wikimedia)

The ongoing economic crisis has had a broad range of effects on community colleges in the United States. Cuts in state and local funding have hit public community colleges hard, even as rising unemployment has lead to increased enrollment at such institutions. These trends can have a positive long-term effect on regional growth, as human capital rises with education levels, and greater levels of human capital can push up wages. But if state investments in postsecondary education continue to decline, what are the potential long-term effects?

A 2012 study published in the Sociology of Education, “Community Colleges, Budget Cuts, and Jobs: The Impact of Community Colleges on Employment Growth in Rural U.S. Counties, 1976-2004,” examines the role of community colleges on local job growth. The researchers, from Washington State University, based their research on community colleges in 2,017 rural counties in 44 U.S. states between 1976 and 2004.

The findings include:

  • Counties with an established community college or university experienced significantly more job growth than those without one. At the same time, new community colleges did not make a significant contribution to employment growth. “This finding lends support to the belief that local economic benefits provided by community colleges and other educational facilities occur over time.”
  • State funding of community colleges fell significantly from 1981 to 2001, dropping from 48.5% in 1981 to 39.7% in 2001. “This decline was not offset by increased federal and local appropriations; this source of revenues also made a declining contribution. Instead, community colleges grew increasingly dependent on tuition and fees (increased from 14.7% in 1981 to 19.5% of total revenues in 2001).”
  • Cuts in state funding were challenging for all community colleges, but those that served rural areas were the most vulnerable. Disadvantaged residents also suffer, as schools’ greater reliance on tuition and fees reduces their ability to pursue advanced education. “For the least affluent, the United States no longer provides ready access to community colleges; postsecondary education now comes with indebtedness. It should come as no surprise that the least affluent families incur more debt and have greater difficulty repaying loans.”
  • Counties where state appropriations for community colleges fell the fastest suffered significant decreases in employment.

“Our findings suggest that state appropriations may have been the most effective means for community colleges to contribute to local employment growth. When state appropriations constituted the lion’s share of revenues, community colleges made a significant and positive contribution to employment growth,” the authors state. “With state appropriations representing a smaller and still shrinking share of revenues, community colleges no longer make a positive contribution to local employment growth.

The authors state that “from 1960 to 1980, the United States displayed a commitment to education, reflected in the construction of community colleges across the country….” To provide comparative policy context, the study notes that “by contrast, the latter decades of the twentieth century (1980-2000) witnessed an unrelenting commitment to incarceration and prison building … with a turn away from community colleges.”

A related 2012 paper in the Annual Review of Sociology, “Social and Economic Returns to College Education in the United States,” notes that “degrees and certificates from two-year colleges boost the earnings for the students who complete such programs and perhaps for students who complete only part of their program.”

Tags: higher education, rural


Writer: | November 28, 2012

Citation: Crookston, Andrew; Hooks, Gregory. "Community Colleges, Budget Cuts, and Jobs: The Impact of Community Colleges on Employment Growth in Rural U.S. Counties, 1976-2004," Sociology of Education, May 2012. doi: 10.1177/0038040712441376.

Media analysis

Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "California Cuts Threaten the Status of Universities."

  1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

Study analysis

Read the full study titled "Community Colleges, Budget Cuts, and Jobs: The Impact of Community Colleges on Employment Growth in Rural U.S. Counties, 1976-2004.”

  1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
  2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
  3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
  4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
  5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

  1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
  4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
  5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
  6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

Class discussion questions

  1. What is the study’s most important finding?
  2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
  3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
  4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
  5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
  6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

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