Closing Wage Gaps Through Program-Level ROI Analysis


This paper was presented by Dave Mahan (Founding Executive Director of the Research Institute at Dallas College), Beatriz Joseph (Vice Chancellor of Student Success, Dallas College), and Ben Magill (Associate Vice Chancellor of Economic Opportunity, Dallas College) at the 2022 AACC Annual Conference in New York City.

As discourse on the return on investment (ROI) of college continues, leaders in higher education are increasingly charged with measuring, enhancing, and conveying the economic value that their institutions provide to students. While existing approaches often report ROI as a single metric for a particular college or field of study, student experiences vary and returns may differ by race or ethnicity, gender, and family income level, among many other factors. To effectively serve the communities in which they are embedded, postsecondary practitioners must ask themselves who among their students reap positive, high returns, who do not, and why. Closing such gaps is a challenging but critical task, especially for community colleges, given their diverse populations. For their public mission to succeed, community colleges must award postsecondary credentials of value and ensure that the earnings potential of those credentials is realized by graduates in an equitable way.

In this paper, The Research Institute takes steps toward better understanding the ROI, wages, and wage gaps of graduates of Dallas College and shares this approach as a possible template for other community colleges to follow. Dallas College, located on seven campuses in Dallas County, serves over 125,000 learners with a student body that is 46% first-generation, 60% female, 54% Pell-eligible, 49% Hispanic, and 21% Black or African-American (see Figure 1). A mixed-methods inquiry into academic programs at Dallas College was used to identify which ones most often place graduates into occupations that are within their field of study and that pay living wages, and to assess which programs have been most effective at closing wage gaps. Using labor market data from the Texas Workforce Commission and Emsi, the authors analyze the estimated earnings and online job profiles of thousands of Dallas College alumni, testing for statistically significant differences by program and demographic group. The authors supplement the findings from quantitative analysis by conducting focus groups and interviews from Dallas College’s largest programs in order to gather faculty and alumni perspectives on career placement best practices. To conclude, recommendations are offered for a more holistic support system that helps students maximize their potential return on investment. Suggestions are also made for improved future studies of the economic returns of community college.

Figure 1
Dallas College Demographic Profile

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Note. Data sources: Dallas College Strategic Research and Analytics. 2020-21 total enrollment with demographics from for- credit Student profile: Fall 2021.


Review of ROI Research

The question of whether college is a worthwhile investment is not a new one, but new data and approaches have emerged in recent years, driving a continuing conversation around postsecondary value. In particular, increasingly specific post-college earnings data from the College Scorecard have enabled highly visible rankings of ROI by institution (Carnevale et al., 2019; Itzkowitz, 2020) and field of study (Itzkowitz, 2021). Reviews of the academic literature on the value of higher education generally document positive returns to college, including community college (Barrow & Malamud, 2015), and note the importance of both field of study and choice of occupation to student earnings (Oreopoulos & Petronijevic, 2013). The relatively low costs of community college tend to result in higher short-term ROI, but the elevated earnings of four-year, bachelor’s holders typically yield higher ROI over a longer time horizon or lifetime.

The latest round of ROI analyses has an emphasis on equitable outcomes, with recent releases ranking how well institutions serve low-income students and foster economic mobility (Carnevale et al., 2022; Itzkowitz, 2022). These reports call to mind prior research put forward to examine colleges as vehicles for intergenerational income mobility (Chetty et al., 2020). They also align, in principle if not in exact methods, with the main directive of the Postsecondary Value Commission (2021). Part of this mission—to monitor which colleges and programs generate equitable value—is shared by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the American Council on Education, which have announced a forthcoming socioeconomic mobility classification of their own, to be released in 2023.

Although college rankings and classifications may at times feel reductive and not actionable to institutional leadership, the shift in priority away from prestige and selectivity and toward an equity lens can help illuminate tangible areas for improvement. Prospective students choose which college and program to pursue—a decision that can greatly affect their ROI. Therefore, institutions have a responsibility to create value, equity, and transparency in their offerings. This onus on colleges is sometimes codified in policy, as with past gainful employment rules around debt and earnings. In some states, like Texas, the strategic vision for education directly lists postsecondary credentials of value as a core objective (Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2022). Beyond policy alignment, a further motivation for colleges to reflect on the value they offer students is the need to stay competitive. Demonstrating value to prospective students is increasingly important amid a proliferation of alternative credentials from both public and private sectors, like online certificates and bootcamps, and major declines in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2021).

Amid the technical details, the pressure of rankings, and the very premise of boiling education down to a dollars-and-cents value, a natural rebuttal from many who have devoted their lives to higher education as a holistic good is to wave off introspection around ROI altogether. While there surely are well-reasoned critiques of the concept, ROI measures can be particularly helpful for community colleges, where student need for economic returns is often pragmatic and grounded in financial necessity. One barrier to a robust analysis of college ROI, however, is that information on postsecondary outcomes can be messy, with pros and cons to different data sources (Harmon, 2021). College Scorecard data offer a useful starting point for colleges that are seeking to evaluate their students’ ROI but are not sure how to begin. As a first pass, ROI calculations using Scorecard data and existing methods can be broadly informative if underlying assumptions are kept in mind. The Research Institute created an ROI Dashboard for Dallas College as an initial way to explore ROI using Scorecard data.

The College Scorecard continues to expand in its specificity with new releases. Recent additions incorporate breakdowns of earnings data by gender, dependent status, and income level. However, the data are still limited in notable ways; for example, earnings cannot be disaggregated by ethnicity or race, and field-of-study data is often privacy-suppressed due to small sample sizes. Furthermore, only students who receive federal financial aid are included in Scorecard data. Institutions with more detailed internal information on the costs their students pay, and the eventual earnings of those students, are poised to produce much more specific and actionable ROI estimates. This kind of data, with qualitative support, is what underlies the analysis of student outcomes at Dallas College in this paper.

Quantitative Analysis

To supplement the College Scorecard, the research uses two primary data sources on post-graduation earnings in conducting a quantitative analysis: the Texas Workforce Commission and Emsi. Texas Workforce Commission data offer recent and precise earnings information: actual 2021 wages of alumni who graduated in 2019 and 2020, matched to Dallas College records on credentials conferred. Using this information, average annual wages for associate and certificate holders are calculated, by field of study, as shown in Table 1. Earnings data measured in the first few years of a graduate’s career are also useful for computing one possible measure of ROI: the price-to-earnings premium, or the time it takes for graduates to recoup any educational costs and their foregone earnings while enrolled (Itzkowitz, 2020). The lower the price-to-earnings premium, the faster a degree pays for itself. Calculating this metric also requires an estimate of the net price of college ($4,373 per year from College Scorecard) and an estimate of the earnings of a typical high school graduate ($30,170 per year from the American Community Survey—the average wage of Texas high school graduates aged 25-34 with no college).

Table 1
First-Year Average Wage Outcomes by Program (Texas Workforce Commission)

Program of Study Credential Type Count of Matched Graduates Average Estimated Wages Years to Recoup Costs
Accounting  Associate 29 $37,955 1.12
Certificate 203 $40,073 0.44
Business Administration and Management, General  Associate 194 $39,108 0.98
Certificate 636 $41,099 0.40
Computer Programming/Programmer  Associate 21 $48,163 0.49
Certificate 90 $44,799 0.30
Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications  Associate 49 $50,069 0.44
Certificate 77 $37,151 0.63
General Registered Nursing/Registered Nurse  Associate 210 $67,036 0.24

While short-term earnings information is certainly useful, the Research Institute also wishes to assess the long-run returns of Dallas College graduates. This is where Emsi data can be beneficial. Dallas College contracted an economic impact study with Emsi in 2021. In this study, alumni from credit-bearing academic and technical credential programs from the years 1968 to 2021 were processed and matched to person-level profiles in the Emsi database. Each profile in the Emsi database contains a graduate’s most recent employment status and occupation, scraped from over 100 websites and sources including social media (e.g., LinkedIn). While this information does not have the exact earnings of Dallas College alumni, knowing what they do and where they work allows the estimation of their potential wages. For a given occupation and county, Emsi reports mean, median, and tenth and ninetieth percentile potential wages based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Census Bureau, and state labor departments. Emsi then adjusts these potential wages for alumni age and educational attainment (associate degree, certificate, or skills achievement) to estimate what each graduate in their database earned in 2021.

The Emsi data were cleaned and supplemented by removing duplicates, adding in demographic fields from Dallas College’s records, and limiting the data to only those alumni who graduated in 2010 or later. For the wage gap analysis, the data was restricted to five of the largest programs at Dallas College based on the number of matched Emsi records available, with the understanding that these programs were diverse and representative, and with the intent to conduct a limited number of focus groups and interviews following the quantitative analysis. The programs analyzed are (1) Accounting, (2) Business Administration and Management, (3) Computer Programming, (4) Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications, and (5) Nursing (RN).

Table 2 shows average wages by program along with the percent of graduates who work in the same field they studied in college (see Appendix A for CIP-to-SOC mapping). For each program, the wages shown are determined as a weighted average based on the composition of occupations that graduates of that program enter. Tables listing the most common occupations for each program of study and their associated wages are included in Appendix B. The authors acknowledge that these are on the high side of possible wages, in part because Emsi includes benefits and all forms of employer contributions in its earnings data. The tenth percentile wages are the most conservative estimate. Selection bias is also a possible issue since graduates with lower-paying jobs may not be as likely to have public online job profiles. The wages in Table 2 are averages across the first ten years of graduates’ careers, unlike the first-year wages in Table 1. In line with the dollar figure used by Dallas County Promise and suggested by the MIT Living Wage Calculator (DMN Education Lab, 2020), a baseline of $50,000 per year is used for livable wage, which not all programs quite meet at the tenth percentile. Note, these wages average all Dallas College attainment levels (i.e., associate degree, certificate, skills achievement) together.

Table 2
First-Ten-Year Average Wage Outcomes by Program (Emsi)

Program of Study Count of Matched Graduates Average Estimated Wages 10th-90th Percentile Potential Wage Range Share of Graduates Employed in Field
Accounting  345 $70, 151 $43,472-$148,185 88.4%
Business Administration and Management, General  516 $68,173 $41,188-$139,086 91.9%
Computer Programming/Programmer  131 $77,227 $52,455-$141,455 72.5%
Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications  358 $73,682 $49,778-$136,939 74.9%
General Registered Nursing/Registered Nurse  683 $72,165 $55,657-$117,405 91.9%

Seeking to identify wage gaps in each program, an ordinary least squares regression analysis was used with demographic indicator variables, age, and location as controls. The analysis reveals differences in outcomes by race or ethnicity, gender, and Pell eligibility (a proxy for family income), as highlighted using ratios in Figure 2. For example, Pell-eligible graduates in accounting earn $0.78 per $1.00 earned by graduates who are not Pell-eligible. Non-White graduates in business earn $0.87 per $1.00 earned by White non-Hispanic graduates, and female graduates in nursing earn $0.89 per $1.00 earned by male graduates in nursing. No significant differences were observed between first-generation and multi-generation graduates in any of these five programs, nor do the authors find earnings gaps for any groups in the Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications program. The lack of statistically significant gaps suggests that wage outcomes across the groups being compared are equitable, or at a minimum that the available data do not indicate otherwise. When aggregate earnings differences across groups were found, an analysis of job titles or occupations was investigated to understand why. Some of the possible explanations include differences in opportunities for promotion or advancement, occupational segregation in types of jobs held, and mismatches between career and program of study, as explained below.

Figure 2
Wage Ratios by Demographic Group and Program of Study

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Note. Data sources: Emsi 2010-2021; Dallas College Strategic Research and Analytics. Wage ratios by in-field job status, gender, Pell eligibility, and White, non-Hispanic race/ethnicity across 5 programs of study. Wage gaps statistically favoring in-field employees or minority demographic groups are colored red. Wage gaps statistically favoring out-of-field employees or majority demographic groups are colored blue. Wage gaps that are not statistically significant are colored tan.

In Accounting, Pell-eligible graduates earn $0.78 per $1.00 earned by Pell-ineligible graduates. Differences in kinds of jobs and opportunities for advancement to leadership roles appear to explain this difference. Pell-ineligible graduates work in higher-paid roles as financial managers or chief executives (17%) more often than do Pell-eligible graduates (7%). Meanwhile, Pell-eligible graduates are more often employed in lower-paid roles as accounting clerks and bookkeepers (14%) than are Pell-ineligible graduates (10%).

In Business, female graduates earn $0.98 per $1.00 earned by male graduates, and non-White graduates earn $0.87 per $1.00 earned by White graduates. Here, differences in job titles suggest that gender-based occupational segregation may be a factor. Female graduates work in lower-paid roles as clerks, secretaries, and in office support (20%) more often than do male graduates (8%), who also edge out women in the frequency with which they hold jobs as managers. A similar pattern existed by race and ethnicity. White graduates work as general and operations managers, personal service managers, sales managers, and finance managers (21%) more often than do non-White graduates (11%).

In Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications, there is relative parity across demographic groups and wages for associate holders that were at or above the $50,000 living wage threshold, whether using Emsi (even at the tenth percentile) or Texas Workforce Commission data. In Computer Programming, Pell-ineligible graduates had higher earnings than did Pell-eligible graduates: Pell-eligible graduates earned $0.84 per $1.00 earned by Pell-ineligible graduates.

In Nursing, a lower percentage of male graduates are employed as registered nurses (66%) than female graduates (83%), with a higher percentage of male graduates instead working in higher-paying roles as medical and health services managers and nurse practitioners (11%) than female graduates (6%). Similar patterns are observed when comparing non-White and White Nursing graduates—non-White graduates more often work as nurse practitioners or medical managers than do White graduates, as shown in Figure 3. Similar comparisons can be made for each field of study in an Interactive Dashboard.

Figure 3
Job Placement Comparison: Non-White and White Graduates in Nursing

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Note. Data sources: Emsi 2010-2021; Dallas College Strategic Research and Analytics. Larger bubbles indicate more matched graduates employed in that SOC. Darker bubbles indicate a higher average estimated annual wage up to $100,000.

The gaps discussed thus far are by demographic group. However, the largest disparities in wages in each program of study are between those who work in jobs aligned to their field of study and those who do not. A few examples of graduates working in jobs not aligned to their field of study include graduates who work as social and human service assistants, customer service representatives, retail salespersons, security guards, or first-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers. This in-field/out-of-field wage gap is statistically significant across all five programs assessed, and it ranges in magnitude from a difference in earnings of 29% (Nursing) to 72% (Accounting).

Intersectionality affecting wage outcomes was also a key area of interest across demographic groups. Figure 4 showcases average estimated earnings for all graduates in the Dallas College Emsi database (inclusive of all academic programs, not limited to the five programs discussed above). Mean earnings were at or below the $50,000 threshold for non-White, female, first-generation graduates, whether they were Pell-eligible or not.

Figure 4
Average Estimated Wage Outcomes by Demographic Group

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Note. Data sources: Emsi 2010-2021; Dallas College Strategic Research and Analytics. Female student wages found within the red circle; Pell-eligible student wages found in the blue circle; first-generation student wages found in the orange circle; non-White student wages found in the green circle. Wages of individuals who are members of more than one group found in the intersection of the applicable circles.

Studying interaction effects while looking at particular programs can be challenging due to small sample sizes, but a few statistically significant examples were found in the data. In Business, non-White female graduates earn $0.77 per $1.00 that White male graduates earn; in Accounting, non-White Pell-eligible graduates earn $0.79 per $1.00 that non-White graduates who are not Pell-eligible earn; and in Computer Programming, female Pell-eligible graduates earn $0.87 per $1.00 that male Pell-eligible graduates earn.

The final element of the quantitative analysis was to study the implications of wage gaps on ROI over the long run, as even seemingly small wage gaps can lead to large differences in lifetime returns. For this, the results from all fields are presented rather than program-specific information in order to ensure a sufficient sample size for analysis. Because the cross-sectional data included alumni from many cohorts, an estimate can be made showing how wages evolved over time, from the first year after earning an associate degree (class of 2020) to over a decade out (class of 2010). To calculate group-specific ROI, the earnings estimate from Emsi is combined with net price from the College Scorecard using existing “net present value” methods and assumptions (Carnevale et al., 2019). Figure 5 shows how ROI varied among associate degree earners by demographic group included in the analysis, compared over a 40-year horizon. Non-completers are not included; therefore, higher estimates are yielded than using Scorecard data alone (which includes non-completers). ROI numbers also do not subtract out the earnings stream of a typical high school graduate (i.e., the opportunity cost of college). However, lifetime earnings of a high school graduate are presented as a reference point in Figure 5, using American Community Survey data on the average wages of Texas high school graduates aged 25-34 with no college ($30,170 annually).

Figure 5
ROI by Demographic Group for Dallas College Associate Degree Earners

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Overall, graduates who earn an associate degree and go on to work in the field they study in college earn nearly $1 million more over their lifetime than do individuals with a high school diploma alone: $1.83 million versus $841,000. The ROI of each group was compared to the average ROI of all graduates at Dallas College using Emsi data. Here, the findings reflect the wage gaps noted earlier. On average, female graduates have lower ROI than male graduates, non-White graduates have lower ROI than White non-Hispanic graduates, and Pell-eligible graduates have lower ROI than graduates who are not Pell-eligible. By nature of the Emsi dataset, these differences reflect differences both in what groups of students choose to study and in their ultimate occupations regardless of their field of study.

The stark differences in earnings between graduates who work in their field of study and those who do not suggests that some, but not all, students are able to capitalize on the earnings premium their credentials confer. These differences also represent an area for action and opportunity: if more students can be placed into jobs relevant to their academic program, institutions may see wages rise for those programs and as whole. But what explains which programs effectively match students to careers in their field of study and which do not? To better answer this question, qualitative research was used to ask program faculty and alumni directly.

Qualitative Analysis

Following the quantitative analysis, a qualitative case study in the form of focus groups and interviews was conducted for each program of study with current faculty and credential completers from both traditionally aged and adult learner groups. The sessions with students and faculty occurred separately in order to maintain homogeneity between the two groups of participants who likely have significant differences in age, position, and status, as well as to encourage disclosure among the participants. Graduates were randomly selected for participation, and faculty were invited directly and through snowball sampling from other faculty and program chairs. Despite utilizing random selection techniques, individuals still self-selected to participate in the focus groups, which could have potentially led to biases and obstructed the generalizability of the results. Results from two focus groups with six instructors and program coordinators from the Business Administration and Management program, a focus group with four graduates from the Business Administration and Management program, interviews with two alumni from the Computer Systems Networking program, focus groups with two graduates from the Accounting program and three graduates from the Computer Programming program, an interview with a Computer Programming alumna, and an interview with a Nursing alumna are available and analyzed in this section.

The focus groups and interviews were semi-structured; participants were asked to answer and discuss predetermined questions and share their own attitudes and viewpoints about their program. Discussion topics in the faculty focus groups included questions related to attitudes and behaviors, pedagogical methods, out-of-classroom support, program culture and practices, and career preparation support. Interview questions with alumni explored issues such as career aspirations and preparedness, experiences and barriers faced in one’s program of study and in the job market, and program and institutional support. Conclusions and themes from the participants’ responses have been theoretically understood through the lens of Human Capital Theory (Becker, 1994; Carneiro et al., 2010), Theory of Student Retention (Tinto & Russo, 1994), Theory of Student Involvement (Astin, 1999), and Theory of Vocational Development (Super, 1953). Human capital is defined as the intangible assets that are nurtured through education, mentoring, and experiences; the building blocks of human capital include hard and soft skills, educational and situational knowledge, relationship development skills, leadership skills, and critical thinking skills. The Theory of Student Retention suggests that students are more likely to succeed in their academic programs if the programs commit to student success, provide the academic and social support necessary for their success, hold high expectations, and actively engage them in learning. The Theory of Student Involvement asserts that students’ academic and co-curricular involvement and interaction with faculty determine how well they learn and cultivate skills, and the Theory of Vocational Development suggests that individuals’ career choices evolve according to their self-concept and are influenced by complex cultural, sociological, psychological, and biological factors. Findings from the qualitative case study show that the programs that practice and are cognizant of all these concepts produce the most successful graduates.

The Business faculty at Dallas College play numerous roles to prepare students for academic, career, and lifelong success. Faculty are aware of the nature of the student population they serve; most students are, to some degree, economically disadvantaged, demographically underrepresented, and less than college-ready. Unanimously, they emphasize equitable treatment of all students and an instructor approach that is flexible, accommodating, customizable, and sensitive to the special needs and obstacles of many Dallas College students, regardless of students’ demographic backgrounds. In their instruction, faculty balance theory and practice in coursework design and adapt the curriculum to societal, technological, and industry changes. They leverage industry knowledge to create business “reality” experiences for students by incorporating living case studies and business simulations in the curriculum, and they provide networking and consulting opportunities with employers through the coursework. In addition to pedagogical innovation, faculty strive to develop human capital in students through mentorship and coaching grounded in the objective of forming a career-focused mindset. Specifically, they mentor students on how to develop grit and perseverance, ethically engage and build relationships in a business environment, develop sound financial habits, and find resources to determine the quality and fairness of their wages. Ultimately, faculty desire the following outcomes for their students: confidence, self-assurance, people skills, agility, a growth mindset, a zeal for lifelong learning, and sound personal financial habits. With these tools in hand and credentials completed, instructors have seen students achieve upward mobility through job promotions and job placements that lead to sustaining and rewarding careers.

"We cannot expect students to be job-ready if we do not provide them with the resources ahead of time. What does that look like before job interviews or before employers come on campus to promote job opportunities? So how we build that into the curriculum will be very interesting...[in] every course that we teach our students, we can set aside to talk about job."

— Business Program Administrator

"Another thing we focus on is social responsibility not just in the sense of diversity 'cause we do talk about that, but that you go to work for a company for multiple reasons land] one of them should be to better your community to better the society ... dont think of [a job] just from title and [in terms [of] what kind of work are you doing that's [going to] help your fellow mankind."

— Business Instructor

"Every student needs customized support, …[and] it’s not too hard to figure out which ones need a little special help…I'll share my own stories about [grit and perseverance] … as my lecture material allows. [The] point of the stories are…if you want it bad enough, there's a way for you to get there…you just have to want it…I think underprivileged students [and] students from difficult backgrounds…need to hear that because they don't have those stories to share around the dinner table, especially our first-generation students."

— Business Instructor

The Business alumni participants represent both traditional and adult learners from diverse demographic and professional backgrounds who entered their respective programs during various points in their careers and for distinct purposes. One graduate with a master’s degree completed a certificate program for a promotion in her company; another graduate built up her educational profile through stackable credentials by completing a series of certificates and two associate degrees before earning a bachelor’s degree; the only male graduate participant earned an associate degree, a certificate, and later a bachelor’s degree after being promoted in his career of over three decades; the traditional learner completed an associate degree and a certificate through primarily online courses and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree while employed full-time in healthcare administration. Alumni’s overall perspectives on the Business program echoed that of the faculty. They praised faculty engagement and dedication, appreciated the program’s academic rigor, and valued the experiential learning opportunities, particularly the co-op courses. The adult learners expressed improvements in self-motivation and self-confidence in their jobs after earning their credentials, and all participants felt welcomed and supported in the program. One complaint about the curricula was the nearly-identical coursework in most of the certificate programs—with the exclusion of one or two distinct courses. This confused some students who anticipated learning significantly different content and skillsets within the different certificate programs. However, the alumni stressed they received top-notch mentorship and instruction from their instructors who, those who have been in four-year programs collectively agreed, were more engaging and helpful than professors in their universities. Their Dallas College Business credentials have allowed these graduates to increase earnings, and all are content with their career trajectories.

"The professors always, always made time…they were just so concerned and just wanted you to succeed. Even if you would feel discouraged… they always knew how to get you back on track. They had an impact on me because they motivated me to want more for myself, to find my place."

— Business Graduate

"I had a really, really satisfying experience going to Dallas College. I think the quality of the education and the professors were often times better than the four-year university when I was taking my bachelor's classes—they were just very intense. [Faculty] were very knowledgeable and [provided] me [a] high-quality education. I learned a lot more in some classes at Dallas College than I did at the four-year university."

– Business Graduate

"My credential from Dallas College made me stronger and more confident. It gave me the knowledge and proper footing to move forward [in my career]. The Business [program] was very professional and very clear on intentions, and the professors that were chosen were perfect for the programs. It's one of the educational experiences that I've truly enjoyed.”

— Business Graduate

The alumni interviewed from the Computer Systems Networking program are demographically diverse adult learners who pursued the CCNA/Cisco Academy certification within the CSN program to seek new career paths and learn a new skillset for gainful employment. They described the program as highly reputable, academically challenging, and led by excellent instructors who are industry-connected and devoted to placing students in Networking and IT occupations. The demanding curriculum and networking opportunities prepared alumni to excel in certification exams, enter baccalaureate and graduate programs at a university, and/or find employment quickly. The alumni shared that the program faculty prioritized placing students in jobs while providing instruction; in fact, students often secured positions before completing a credential or before passing the CCNA certification exam, as was the case for one interviewee. Experiencing a supportive and encouraging environment, the interviewees stressed that the uniqueness of the program lies in the faculty’s ability to identify students’ strengths and direct them to opportunities that align with those skills. Both graduates, including one who is an African-American woman, felt a strong sense of belonging and connection with fellow students and with faculty in the program. Highly satisfied with his career outcomes, one interviewee conveyed he is in exactly the occupation he wants to be—that of a network engineer in the public sector. Another graduate values the quick path to upward mobility her training has provided; after three years in her first IT job, she was offered a nearly six-figure salary at another company.

"The Cisco class at Dallas College changed my life and perspective…I have met some of the smartest, best professors that I've had ...I've met some wonderful people [with whom I] started a nonprofit to create networking opportunities for people of color and [those] on the margin in [the] cybersecurity industry ... because it changed my life."

— Networking Graduate

"You could tell he [faculty member] actually cared about the students and he was there to help them actually get jobs…he would say, ‘Hey, I'm here to help you get a job; this is what you need to do.’ It was really good ... I recommend [the program] to people all the time."

— Networking Graduate

The experiences shared in the Nursing program are from an adult learner who completed a Veterinary Technology Associate degree from Dallas College and worked in veterinary medicine for over 20 years before entering the Nursing program. After completing the Associate of Applied Science in Nursing, she was employed as an ICU Nurse in various hospitals in and out of the state in diverse healthcare environments, which included work at a Native American hospital. She completed her BSN degree while working as a nurse and is currently employed in a non-clinical role in a prominent Dallas hospital. The graduate described the Nursing program as very rigorous and demanding with experienced and immensely supportive faculty who fostered a team environment among student cohorts, mentored students on multicultural and compassion-based approaches to nursing, and assisted students in succeeding in difficult courses, sometimes even inviting students to their homes to review material. While caring, some faculty members and their courses were also quite challenging; in fact, the alumna shared that she and the majority of students in her final course before graduation were failed by one instructor. After appeals from the students, the program allowed them to retake a condensed version of the course and pass the learning objectives they had previously failed.

In hindsight, the alumna is grateful for the academic rigor she and her peers endured, as she is appreciative of the extensive semesterly clinical courses required in the program. These field experiences exposed students to a range of healthcare facilities and hospital units, allowing them to develop insights into the dynamics and inner workings of hospitals and build capacity to manage the challenges of the profession. Students had the opportunity to network during the clinicals, and hospitals would often attempt to recruit students into positions after graduation. The graduate shared that her income with the AAS degree was quite competitive for an entry-level nursing position and increased with experience gained; the BSN allowed for only a slight increase in her earnings. While she is content with her earnings, she emphasizes that the human connections and spiritual experiences of her work, especially in the ICU units during the peaks of COVID-19, have outweighed the monetary gains.

"The [program] at Dallas College has been the base of everything for me and I consider it a strong base…I’ve met people who came from big universities and got their BSN right off the bat and were not as competent as the ones coming out of [Dallas] College. I can't see doing it another way…it [community college] was a perfect way for me."

— Nursing Graduate

"[The clinical component of the program] was more extensive than people have had in other states…I've been all over in different states and they didn't have the level of or the amount of hours that we did….and it ranged anywhere from medical surgical to stepdown cardiac [to] level one neuro ICU. I also did psychiatric care at a state hospital…it ended up being a really good experience, [one] I wouldn’t ever want to take away."

— Nursing Graduate

The participants in the Accounting focus group are women adult learners from minority backgrounds who sought the associate of science degree to either pursue an accounting career or upskill for independent entrepreneurial endeavors. While they voice that the program offers a challenging curriculum that provides a solid knowledge base, the alumni expressed mixed attitudes toward the program and say the quality of instruction varied by campus and by courses. While some faculty engaged students through effective pedagogy, mentored students to pursue further education, and offered additional support in challenging courses, some did not. One alumna—a first-generation and first-time college student—shared that a couple of her instructors incorporated professional development knowledge and experiences in their courses. Another interviewee, who did not seek academic advising while in the program, felt the program holistically did not guide students in career pathways or clarify necessary next steps after completing the associate degree. Culturally, the women did not experience exclusion in the program and felt respected by their instructors and peers. Even though graduates stress it is their four-year degrees that have allowed them to land careers in or related to the field, they acknowledge the Accounting AAS program supplied foundational knowledge and certain skill sets in preparation for further education and particular professional pursuits. The alumni are satisfied with their incomes but intend to complete MBAs to advance professionally and increase upward mobility. Both emphasize the value of their occupations lie not only in earnings, but also in suitability to their lifestyles, personalities, and emotional well-being.

"One [adjunct instructor] who taught Intro to Accounting…made me fall in love with Accounting. She broke down concepts well…used the whiteboard…made it very easy and understandable. I still have some of her notes! She said, ‘If you want to have a career in this field, you need the bachelor’s’."

— Accounting Graduate

"I got to meet a lot of students [in the program]. I think it was a really good environment, [and] I really did like all my instructors…they were very approachable. In one class, an Accounting firm visited and talked to us about career paths and how much they paid…[I learned] what kinds of positions and internships are out there…and it made me think, ‘What can I be?’"

— Accounting Graduate

Three demographically diverse men adult learners—two of whom pursued credentials in Computer Programming for new career opportunities and one who sought to acquire programming skills for professional development in his current job—shared their perspectives in a focus group. Additionally, a first-generation, Latina alumna from the Year Up program who recently completed the AAS in the Programming track shared her experiences.

The general consensus among the adult learners is that, while the credentials earned through the program either provided foundational knowledge or helped one to obtain a job in the field, the four-year degree and years of independent learning are what truly prepared them to do the work required in their current programming jobs. Some graduates expressed there is a disconnect between the program’s intent to prepare students for occupations and students’ actual preparation for those jobs after credential completion; however, another individual felt he gained the skills he desired for his non-programming job. While one instructor was praised for quality teaching and industry knowledge, some others were described as not as attuned to industry demands. Interviewees claim the curricula lacked enough instruction in industry-related items and subject areas for entry-level programming jobs. Alumni also shared that some faculty did not recommend to students that they pursue further education to develop advanced skills, which, they say, is an absolute necessity to obtain a job in the field. Still, the participants always felt welcomed in their classes and underscore that the faculty supported struggling students. All are quite satisfied with their current careers and earnings; one graduate who earned the Computer Information Technology Programmer certificate is pleased with the occupation this credential has allowed him to acquire and believes the certificate has granted him industry credibility to pursue his entrepreneurial aspirations.

The experiences of the alumna who completed the Year Up program at Dallas College varied in comparison to those of the adult learners. With several dual and AP credits completed in high school, including college-level courses in Computer Science, this graduate came to Dallas College knowing she wanted to pursue a career in Programming. In preparation for her entrance to the College, she discovered the College’s partnership with Year Up—a one-year job training program in Business and Technology fields wherein students take classes in their chosen program of study and place in corporate internships in that year. The alumna was one course shy of completing a certificate in Programming when she decided to pursue the AAS degree. After a few months into her internship at a prominent bank and seven months prior to completing the AAS, she was hired as a full-time software engineer at her company and is currently in this position. Studying at Dallas College during the pandemic and having transportation barriers meant virtual classes were her only option. Nevertheless, she felt strongly supported by the Programing faculty both academically and personally during a period of family troubles. Her instructors periodically checked in on her and offered extra assistance to help her catch up with the class material; she remains in contact with one instructor who has provided job references. She believes her coursework has given her a foundation in programming and software but admits she has had to learn many skillsets on the job. Year Up’s professional development courses have also been extremely beneficial for her self-growth, particularly in her confidence to engage and persist in a corporate environment. While the young alumna feels very fortunate for the financial stability her salary provides and for her capacity to support her parents, she plans to complete a bachelor’s degree in software engineering to advance her skillset, increase her earnings, and be the first in her family to earn a four-year degree.

"I wanted to [learn programming] on the side just for my own education and personal development…so [the AAS] was a good program. What I learned at Dallas College, I was definitely able to use…I was able to write a couple of programs related to what I do at work for my team. I didn't feel uncomfortable speaking with the guys who do [programming] for a living. Overall, I think it was a good program,…[and] the teachers were pretty good."

— Computer Programming Graduate

"My education definitely helped me get the job I’m in because if I didn’t come to Dallas College, I wouldn’t have even heard about the Year Up program and would have never enrolled…it’s because of this program that I have my job. The courses I took at Dallas College gave me a foundation in programming languages…and Year Up helped me develop professionally and get an internship ..."

— Computer Programming Graduate

Key Findings and Discussion

Emerging motifs from this case study imply community college faculty are in a unique position to focus intensely on teaching and student learning since they are less inundated with pressures to research and publish than they would be at four-year institutions. Faculty at two-year institutions, and particularly in technical and industry-focused academic programs, are also more equipped to utilize their industry knowledge and connections to create meaningful programming and experiences for students’ future career success. Other findings from the qualitative research highlight the importance of infusing relevant career information and exploration into academic offerings that are based on current labor market needs and trends. These results substantiate findings in the scholarly literature that point to the significance of faculty’s influence on students’ academic and career success and the value of purposeful experiential and workforce learning opportunities, as discussed just below.

Many findings from this study by the Research Institute echo the literature on the effects of faculty mentoring on student success. A meta-analysis of 25 quasi-experimental studies on the impact of higher education interventions on student achievement indicated that out of several programs and practices, faculty-student mentoring had the greatest and most positive statistically significant effect on student retention and graduation (Sneyers & De Witte, 2018). A qualitative investigation on faculty experiences at a rural Virginia community college district illustrates that, like at Dallas College, faculty at rural colleges fulfilled varied roles to ensure the success of their unique student population. These roles included advisor and role model, social worker, and economic developer—connecting students with area employers to boost economic development in their regions (Finnegan, 2019). Another qualitative study on faculty of career and technical education programs at two Midwestern community colleges revealed that the instructors incorporated practical applications of theories and concepts in their coursework, shared real-life examples and experiences, employed industry networks to improve academic programs and provide hands-on opportunities for students, recreated workplace scenarios in their classrooms, and prepared students for their prospective professions (Wagner et al., 2021). Moreover, a quantitative study conducted at a Hispanic-serving California community college suggested that faculty who were most engaged with and provided the greatest academic, career, and personal development gains for students were those instructors who were full-time, had more experience teaching the same courses, and taught in career and technical education programs (Lancaster & Lundberg, 2019). Findings from the studies support recommendations for community colleges to invest in the professional development of their faculty, support faculty outside of practical programs to develop innovative approaches to engage their students in practical, field-based experiences, and create programs and schedules that maximize faculty-student contact.

Research related to career preparedness among community college students underscores that students often earn credentials for occupations that do not align with local labor market demands because they lack regular access to a point of contact who can advise them and inform their career investigations and decisions. Furthermore, collaboration and partnerships between institutions and employers are necessary for students to access jobs and career pathways and to acquire skills and training for the job market (Huerta et al., 2022). Results from the focus groups and interviews in this project highlight differences in students’ preparation for occupations between programs that are attuned to industry demands and those that are not. A standardized, college-wide career development curriculum can help eliminate such variations across Dallas College programs of study and propel students to begin planning their career trajectories from the time they enroll. One New York City community college serves as an example of how two-year institutions can place experiential and workforce learning at the forefront of students’ educational journeys. The college implemented a first-year common core, which consists of three courses: Statistics, City Seminar (a class pertaining to NYC issues such as food, housing, gentrification, immigration, sustainability, etc.), and Ethnographies of Work (which provides theoretical and application-based tools for students to understand and address opportunities and challenges in the labor market). Such a curriculum builds social capital and a nuanced understanding of the world of work through academic and experiential undertakings (Hoffman, 2016). Academic Affairs, Workforce and Advancement, and Student Success can collaborate in the future to produce an academic-experiential hybrid curriculum that could potentially benefit many incoming Dallas College students.

Ultimately, students attain the best educational and career outcomes from a college experience that fosters holistic growth. This entails cooperation between all units and divisions of an institution that directly and indirectly serve their students. As an example relevant to Dallas College, student mentoring and advising can evolve into a joint initiative between both the Success Coaching program and faculty in academic programs, as demonstrated in the Roadmap to Completion model adopted by Miami Dade College’s academic and student affairs units. Through this initiative, faculty, advising, career services, and other student success units work in unison to assist students who do not satisfactorily progress in courses through advising, referrals, and development of IEPs to address academic deficits and life issues experienced by these students (Harrison & Rodriguez-Dehmer, 2013). Leveraging the expertise and talents of various departments and student support groups across the College can bring about effective methods that prime students for college and the workforce.

Concluding Remarks

While institutional rankings based on ROI often lead colleges to compete rather than focus on maximizing equitable outcomes for underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged students, using ROI analysis to inform a deeper dive into program success has yielded informative and actionable results for Dallas College. Utilizing Emsi wage estimates, significant gaps are found across demographic groups, even within the same institution and programs of study. Because Emsi data are not inherently adjusted for demographic factors like gender or race, career placement and choice of occupation appear to underlie these gaps in wages. Furthermore, job placement aligned with an individual’s field of study is critical to ensuring higher wages. Over a forty-year horizon after starting college, Dallas College graduates with an associate degree who work in jobs related to their program of study are projected to earn an ROI of $1.83 million dollars, or 10.7% more than those who work out of field.

Both faculty and alumni acknowledge the positive impact of faculty mentorship and field-based learning on gainful and rewarding job placements for graduates. In contrast, alumni stress the difficulties of navigating the job market when faculty are unattuned to industry demands and changes and are therefore unable to mentor students on occupational expectations or provide experiential learning opportunities. This suggests that alternative barriers may inhibit potential career growth for graduates. Responses from the focus groups and interviews indicate that students reap the best returns in their education and in their careers not only through individual drive and motivation, but also by how well their programs of study cultivate employability and soft skills in their students. Moreover, the quality and longevity of student-faculty relationships is paramount to students’ career success; the Business faculty, for instance, continue to counsel many former students who reach out for education and career advice and for job reference requests. Innovative partnerships with institutions and community organizations that offer students experiential learning opportunities and hands-on skills development enable individuals to enter careers quickly and efficiently. Results suggest a need for additional career-related student support services in all programs for skills like resume-writing, interviewing, and occupational communication training, as well as improved advising methods to better match students to jobs in their fields of study. Dallas College’s new Learner Care Model implemented by the Student Success division provides robust academic mentorship and career services to help students navigate through their programs and into the workforce. This model continues to improve students’ overall outcomes through institutional-level initiatives such as Success Coaching, the Student Care Network services to meet students’ basic needs, and the Career Connected Learning Network—a regional partnership between ISDs, universities, employers, and community organizations to strengthen students’ occupational outcomes and maximize their earnings. Dallas College also continues to expand its partnerships with public and private entities to provide students unique opportunities for internships and co-ops in their anticipated careers.

Findings from this study can be used by Dallas College advising programs to inform current students on occupational outcomes in their selected fields and to encourage students to further their education, particularly in fields that value more advanced credentials. Many individuals from the study perceive attainment level to be a consistent barrier for career outcomes, with a bachelor's degree required for many opportunities. However, numerous potential barriers prevent graduates from pursuing further education, some of which may be explored in ongoing focus groups. One related and notable opportunity to address the barrier of further education is through the University of Arizona Global Campus, which will award full-program scholarships for baccalaureate completion to Dallas College alumni who are also Dallas College employees.

Findings from this study can also contribute to research examining variations in wage outcomes at the intersections of credential attainment, in-field job placement, and demographic background. Recommendations for future studies include explorations of confounding variables that affect job placement and job selection. Such analyses would provide a more nuanced look at program-level ROI and career placements for graduates of the Dallas College programs studied here, as well as of other programs.


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Table A1
CIP-to-SOC Mapping Provided by Emsi, Used to Determine In-Field Employment Status

4-Digit CIP 4-Digit CIP Name 2-Digit SOC 2-Digit SOC Name
52.03 Accounting and Related Services 11 Management Occupations
13 Business and Financial Operations Occupations
15 Computer and Mathematical Occupations
25 Educational Instruction and Library Occupations
43 Office and Administrative Support Occupations
52.02 Business Administration, Management and Operations 11 Management Occupations
13 Business and Financial Operations Occupations
15 Computer and Mathematical Occupations
17 Architecture and Engineering Occupations
19 Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations
25 Educational Instruction and Library Occupations
33 Protective Service Occupations
41 Sales and Related Occupations
43 Office and Administrative Support Occupations
49 Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations
51 Production Occupations
53 Transportation and Material Moving Occupations
11.02 Computer Programming 11 Management Occupations
15 Computer and Mathematical Occupations
25 Educational Instruction and Library Occupations
11.09 Computer Systems Networking and Telecommunications 11 Management Occupations
13 Business and Financial Operations Occupations
15 Computer and Mathematical Occupations
25 Educational Instruction and Library Occupations
51.38 Registered Nursing, Nursing Administration, Nursing Research and Clinical Nursing 11 Management Occupations
19 Life, Physical, and Social Science Occupations
25 Educational Instruction and Library Occupations
29 Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations

Table B1
Accounting Graduates: Top Job 5 Placements

6-digit SOC Name N ME
13.2011 Accountants and Auditors 79 $68,555
43.3031 Bookkeeping, Accounting, and Auditing Clerks 41 $37,435
11.3031 Financial Managers 29 $134,694
43.1011 First-Line Supervisors of Office and Administrative Support Workers 22 $54,033
11.1011 Chief Executives 14 $182, 403

Note. SOCs with fewer than 10 Accounting matched graduates employed excluded. ME indicates average Emsi Estimated Annual Wage.

Table B2
Business Graduates: Top 5 Job Placements

6-digit SOC Name N ME
43.1011 First-Line Supervisors of Office and Administrative Support Workers 44 $53,746
11.1021 General and Operations Managers 24 $95,196
11.9198 Management: Personal Service, Entertainment and Recreation, and All Other Except Gambling 22 $89,995
15.1232 Computer User Support Specialists 21 $37,536
43.4051 Customer Service Representatives 18 $32,384

Note. SOCs with fewer than 10 Business matched graduates employed excluded. ME indicates average Emsi Estimated Annual Wage.

Table B3
Computer Programming Graduates: Top 3 Job Placements

6-digit SOC Name N ME
15.1256 Software Developers and Software Quality Assurance Analysts and Testers 35 $94,750
15.1257 Web Developers and Digital Interface Designers 11 $64,490
15.1244 Network and Computer Systems Administrators 10 $80,743

Note. SOCs with fewer than 10 Computer Programming matched graduates employed were excluded, leaving only 3 out of the top 5 SOCs available for analysis. ME indicates average Emsi Estimated Annual Wage.

Table B4
Computer Systems Graduates: Top 5 Job Placements

6-digit SOC Name N ME
15.1244 Network and Computer Systems Administrators 88 $76,628
15.1232 Computer User Support Specialist 56 $41,610
15.1256 Software Developers and Software Quality Assurance Analysts and Testers 21 $92,542
15.1299 Computer Occupations, All Other 17 $79,574
15.1212 Information Security Analysts 13 $105,731

Note. SOCs with fewer than 10 Computer Systems matched graduates employed were excluded. ME indicates average Emsi Estimated Annual Wage.

Table B5
Registered Nursing Graduates: Top 3 Job Placements

6-digit SOC Name N ME
29.1141 Registered Nurse 547 $69,263
11.9111 Medical and Health Services Managers 26 $97,228
29.1171 Nurse Practitioners 18 $109,288

Note. SOCs with fewer than 10 Business matched graduates employed excluded. ME indicates average Emsi Estimated Annual Wage.