March 3, 2022
An increasing number of states are introducing and expanding the authority for community colleges to confer bachelor’s degrees in applied fields, with 25 states currently authorizing and a few more actively considering adoption. As conferral authority expands to new states and institutions, state policymakers and practitioners need more information about who enrolls in these programs and why; how likely students are to complete community college baccalaureate (CCB) programs; and what happens to graduates in the labor market.
Two states, Washington and Florida, have authorized CCB programs for 17 and 21 years, respectively. CCB programs are now operating at almost all predominantly associate-granting public colleges in these states. As of this writing, 27 of 28 colleges in the Florida College System  currently offer baccalaureate degrees, as do 29 of the 34 colleges in the Washington State Community and Technical Colleges. The history and scale in Florida and Washington allow us sufficient numbers to analyze student enrollments and outcomes and to illuminate the value of these programs, centering the need for improved equity in higher education and the labor market for minoritized people and nontraditional students.
Over the last three years, our team of researchers and policy analysts at New America, Bragg & Associates, and the University of Washington has studied the emergence of CCB degrees and student access, enrollment, completion, employment, and earnings of those pursuing CCB degrees. We want to better understand how students are faring in these relatively new programs through an equity lens. In this report, we will use data from Florida and Washington to illuminate who CCB students are and how they fare at various points along a CCB journey, from enrollment decisions to employment and wage outcomes after graduation.  The results of our analysis suggest that CCBs provide an important baccalaureate access point for adult students and that graduates have strong employment and wage outcomes. Our analysis forms the basis for recommendations for policy and future research.
Choosing the CCB
Our team’s recent research found students have a variety of reasons for enrolling in CCB programs but their reasons are rooted in the desire for economic security for themselves and their families. Some students pursue a CCB to advance in their current career path, while others study something new that offers the chance to change careers. In interviews with students and recent graduates in Washington, most described a dearth of bachelor’s programs that would allow them to continue working and caring for family, stay local, and afford to enroll.
Many CCB students are deeply rooted in their communities, often raising children and/or caring for aging parents, and they want to stay local. Their aspiration to finish a bachelor’s degree is strong but not so strong that they are willing to leave their community. Some students even spoke about getting a baccalaureate degree at the community college as a way of honoring those in their home community who they care about and who have invested in them.
Students who are comfortable at their local community college appreciate that staying on for bachelor’s degrees enables them to continue receiving personal encouragement from faculty and staff who supported them at the associate level without the burden of transfer. CCB programs that operate with this perspective were able to attract and keep students through to degree completion, and sometimes maintain relationships as graduates pursued career and life endeavors beyond college.
Students sometimes considered enrolling in a for-profit institution or other baccalaureate degree option but often a CCB program was the only viable choice for a degree that fit their life and finances. The majority of students we interviewed said they would not have pursued a baccalaureate degree were it not for the CCB. For these older students the close location, comfort they felt at the community college, flexibility in scheduling and program delivery options, and adult peer group, coupled with the strong desire they felt to leave the “essential worker” class many of them fell into, were drivers for choosing to enroll in a CCB program.
CCB Options in Florida and Washington
In our 2021 national CCB inventory, we identified 172 active baccalaureate programs at institutions in the Florida College System and 114 programs in the Washington Community and Technical College System. Together, programs in these states represent approximately 53 percent of all CCB programs nationwide. As shown in Figure 1, just over two-thirds (69 percent) of CCB-conferring colleges in Washington are in urban areas, compared to 17 percent in suburban areas and 14 percent in rural communities.  Forty-six percent of Florida colleges offering bachelor’s degrees are located in urban areas, with 29 percent in suburban communities and 25 percent in rural communities.
Figure 2 shows that when looking at CCB programs by urbanization, we observe that 65 percent of Washington CCB programs are housed at urban institutions, compared to 26 percent at suburban community colleges and 8 percent at rural institutions. Urban Florida colleges offer over half (57 percent) of CCB programs in the state, with smaller shares at suburban (26 percent) and rural (16 percent) colleges.
In Washington there was a cumulative total of 6,175 graduates from 2009 through spring 2020 (SBCTC, 2020), with the largest numbers in business, health care, and computer and information sciences. Recently, the state has seen considerable growth in programs in education, especially early childhood education. In Florida, over 45,000 students were enrolled in baccalaureate programs in 2018–19, with the highest enrollments in business, education, health care, and computer and information sciences.
Whereas regional economies vary within and between these two states, availability of programs by areas of study are similar in many areas, as shown in Figure 3 below.  While the two states’ number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and business CCB degree programs is fairly similar, Florida has considerably more education and nursing programs, while Washington colleges have more allied health baccalaureate programs outside of nursing.
Comparing the breakdown of programs within Florida and Washington side by side, we see that business and STEM programs together constitute over half the programs approved in Washington. Florida’s CCB programs are more evenly distributed among STEM, business, nursing, education, and health care, though non-nursing allied health baccalaureate programs in Florida comprise a smaller share of overall CCB programs in this sector than they do in Washington.
Common CCB Areas of Study
Most states that have passed legislation authorizing CCBs put some parameters around what programs can operate. They are often in technical subjects not offered at universities or in areas where four-year institutions do not have the capacity to enroll enough students to meet local labor market demand alone.
Sometimes these CCB degrees are limited in state law to applied bachelor’s degrees (e.g., bachelor of applied science), as was the case until recently in the state of Washington. Until 2021, all bills directed at the community and technical college system stipulated that CCB conferral be limited to the bachelor of applied science (BAS), with the exception of the bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which is the standard industry credential for baccalaureate-trained registered nurses. However, a new bill introduced to the Washington legislature in 2021, referred to as the Amazon bill, authorizes community colleges to confer bachelor of science (BS) degrees in computer science. This legislation was passed overwhelmingly and has been followed by a $3 million investment from Amazon to help scale up computer science BS degrees to help fill job vacancies in an industry sector critical to the state’s economy.
Across the country, various types of bachelor’s degrees are offered through CCB programs, including the BS, BAS, and BSN. Florida allows CCB degrees to be conferred in various forms, with considerable variation among these three types of bachelor’s degrees. Programs must be supported by evidence of labor market demand to receive state approval, but the state is agnostic about the type of degree conferred through CCB programs. Meanwhile, Washington state policy, until the recent passage of the Amazon bill, has prioritized applied baccalaureate degrees not only in the spirit but in the letter of the law, as evidenced by the overwhelming share of programs yielding bachelor of applied science degrees depicted in Figure 4 below. Almost all authorizing states require some evidence of labor market demand for CCB programs, so those degrees are closely career-connected and, in this sense, applied. However, the approaches in Florida and Washington illustrate the different ways that labor market-relevant baccalaureate programs translate into types of degrees.
The most common program areas for CCB degrees are nursing and various allied health fields such as respiratory therapy and dental hygiene; business and organizational management; education, including teacher preparation; and various STEM programs, including engineering technologies and information technology. In recent years, CCB programs have grown in fields such as early childhood education, public administration and social services, and computer science, reflecting changes in regional economies and emerging workforce needs.
Florida and Washington share many of the same program areas, though there is some nuance, as depicted in Figure 5. The share of CCB programs in Washington in STEM fields is higher than the national share, whereas Florida’s share of nursing and education programs exceeds the national share.
CCB Student Demographics
Students who enroll in CCB programs are highly diverse. Many have attended college before, and some have completed an associate degree before starting their CCB program. Our sample of 2016–18 Florida CCB graduates showed this group was 57 percent female (right on par with bachelor’s graduates nationally). Under half, approximately 42 percent, were people of color, and 47 percent were 30 or older.  Students who enroll in Washington’s CCB programs are older than other community college students—32 years of age, on average, compared to 23 for Washington community college students overall. In other respects, students in CCB programs in Washington mirror other community college students, as shown in Figure 6, but they are older and more likely to have dependents, be veterans, and receive financial assistance.
CCB students in Washington are also slightly more racially and ethnically diverse than students in similar university-level bachelor’s degree programs. These findings on student demographics are remarkably similar to Florida, as shown in Figure 7, suggesting the two largest CCB-conferring states are enrolling students who are highly diverse in ways that our data allow us to make comparisons.
We found that in Washington, graduates of CCB programs were slightly more diverse than their university graduate counterparts. To make comparisons of CCB students to students who attended similar programs at regional universities, we limited some of our analysis to only students who were enrolled in similar programs based on classification of instructional program (CIP) codes. This allowed us to examine whether CCB programs graduate a more racially and ethnically diverse group than their university counterparts, as depicted in Figure 8. Comparing the CCB sample to our university sample, our colleague Grant Blume found a slightly higher percentage of Black and Latinx graduates in the CCB group. Asian graduates make up a slightly larger percentage of university graduates than CCB graduates, at nearly 15 percent for the university group and 12 percent of the CCB group. However, the two groups have similar percentages of multiracial students and students of other races. As the chart below shows, we see a larger proportion of Black individuals among the CCB graduates in health care and Latinx individuals among CCB graduates in business than the comparison groups of university graduates.
With gender, females made up a similar percentage of university and CCB graduates in Washington. However, CCB business programs had a higher percentage of female graduates than university business programs, and male graduates were more highly represented among CCB degrees in computer and information sciences and visual and performing arts than their university program counterparts.
We see similar results on the gender composition in business programs in Florida, with slightly more than half of CCB graduates being female. Females are also dominant in health care and in early childhood education, a program area with too few graduates to study in Washington at this time. As Figures 9a and 9b show, historic gendered patterns in occupational fields like health care and education hold true among graduates in both community colleges and universities, though the strong representation of women in business is promising, given their underrepresentation in the past.
Completing a CCB Program
Turning to outcomes of CCB programs in 2018–19, just over 9,000 students earned bachelor’s degrees from Florida community colleges. In this same year, about 1,400 students earned bachelor’s degrees from community and technical colleges in Washington. While we do not have program completion data from Florida to make a direct comparison of graduates, analysis of Washington using the last three years of available data shows that 68 percent of students who started a CCB program completed within four years of beginning the program. Comparing this completion rate to that of students who transferred to public universities in Washington in the same years produced similar results. The completion rate of students after they transferred in Washington was 70 percent, compared to the 68 percent for CCB graduates, both favorable rates of completion.
Employment and Continuing Education
CCB graduates in Florida showed strong rates of employment or continuing education that were similar to peers with associate degrees in similar areas of study. In fact, 83 percent of both baccalaureate graduates and associate graduates were employed four quarters after graduation. However, as Figure 11 shows, the employment rate varies by credential level and program of study.
When looking at Florida graduates’ employment rates by race and ethnicity four quarters after graduation, we observe fairly similar rates between associate graduates and baccalaureate graduates. Black baccalaureate graduates had employment rates three percentage points higher than their peers who earned associate degrees, the greatest difference between associate and bachelor’s level for any racial/ethnic group. While differences between credential levels are relatively small for all groups, it is notable that Indigenous, Asian American, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students had lower employment rates than peers at both credential levels, as shown in Figure 12 below. More research is needed to understand this discrepancy and better support these graduates’ trajectories into the labor market.
Looking at the employment of CCB students in Washington compared to university graduates’ employment (Figure 13), our team found CCB graduates had a higher employment match rate than university graduates in the first and fourth quarters after graduation, and a comparable match rate by the 12th quarter. Research from the Washington SBCTC also showed high employment of CCB graduates, with the highest levels of employment for nursing and other health care graduates. Data show the employment rate of CCB graduates was 75 percent, compared to 69 percent of university graduates. In the fourth quarter, CCB graduates showed a 77 percent match rate, compared to the 70 percent match rate of university graduates. By the 12th quarter, however, the gap between the groups had closed to be nearly equal, with both groups of graduates showing a match rate of approximately 70 percent. It is possible that CCB students graduated with more labor experience, which boosted their wages in initial measured periods.
Our findings from these two states demonstrate that overall employment rates and wages for CCB graduates are strong. In addition, CCBs seem to be a good access point for students of color, though these degrees do not rectify long-standing inequities of pay and employment in the labor market.
CCB Graduate Earnings
Finding that CCB students enjoyed high rates of employment similar to those of university graduates, we turned to examining their earnings. We found that CCB graduate earnings vary by program and grow over time, with health care graduates earning most.
We were particularly interested in how CCB graduates fared compared to students who graduated from one of seven regional universities in Washington in a similar program. Again, drawing on data from UI wage records, earnings tended to be higher for CCB graduates in the first quarter post-graduation than university graduates of similar programs of study,  perhaps due to their older age or greater work experience. However, follow-up data over three years suggest university graduates catch up and sometimes slightly exceed CCB graduates in some fields (Figure 14).
Looking more deeply at health care, a field of study that was identified from the start of Washington CCB policy as critical to growing the state’s labor force, the earnings of CCB graduates were slightly lower than university graduates based on the three quarters of UI wage data we had available to analyze. This result may be influenced by the fact that the university group included a large number of nursing graduates, whereas the CCB group included a substantial number of nurses but also radiation and imaging, dental hygiene, respiratory care, public health, and community health program graduates. This difference in health care program composition for CCB degree programs might contribute to wage differences between CCB graduates and university graduates, though more research is needed for a more definitive conclusion.
In Florida, earning a CCB provides students with a substantial wage boost over those who earn an associate degree in a similar program (Figure 15), a finding consistent with other analysis. CCB graduates also show strong employment rates and wages, a finding consistent with previous research. CCB graduates initially earn slightly more than university graduates in similar programs, but the gap seems to narrow over time. Nevertheless, the concern that CCB programs may not be viewed in the labor market as of the same quality as university programs is not obvious in the data we examined.
Gender and Wages
The only area where female graduates in Washington earned more than male graduates was in the CCB computer and information sciences program, where they earned significantly more than male graduates at one year past bachelor’s degree completion. In this case, the annual earnings of female CCB graduates, at $60,800, exceeded the male CCB graduates, at $50,400, by more than $10,000. Tracking this finding into the future to capture 12th quarter findings will help to answer the question of whether favorable earnings for computer and information sciences CCB graduates compared to university graduates are sustained or fade over time, as occurred for other program areas.
In Florida, as Figure 16 puts in stark relief, women were out-earned four quarters post-graduation by male peers in every field of study for which sufficient data were available to conduct analysis. The unfortunate similarity of the gender wage penalty that women experience in both Florida and Washington may indicate that, while CCBs are providing important access to higher education for a group of racially and ethnically diverse group of women mostly over 25, this access does not remediate long-standing issues of pay inequity in the labor market.
Race, Ethnicity, and Wages
For annualized earnings by race/ethnicity, our research reported similar wages for CCB and university graduates. Too few Black CCB graduates were included in the sample to make meaningful comparisons for the business and computer and information sciences program areas, but a large gap in earnings was observed for Black and white CCB health care graduates in the first and fourth quarters after graduation. This disparity could be due to differences in the specific health care programs from which these students graduated, but we are not able to observe such differences in our data. In any case, this seems to point to inequity for racially minoritized students in the labor market.
When demographic data are disaggregated, wages for Florida CCB graduates vary by race/ethnicity.  Black graduates earn slightly less than peers in IT, and considerably less than Latinx and white graduates in business. For all three areas of study detailed in Figure 17 below, Black graduates earn less than Latinx and white graduates. Latinx allied health graduates earned considerably more than their Black and white peers.  This category includes graduates from a variety of allied health programs. As with Washington, this analysis does not allow for further disaggregation of employment by specific allied health programs, beyond the broad area of study. Earnings disparities within the category may explain the large differences in wages among groups (e.g., differences in wages between dental hygiene and respiratory therapy graduates).
Increasing baccalaureate attainment is a goal for many states. Based on our analysis, CCBs may be expanding access to the baccalaureate. The demographics of CCB students and graduates may indicate that the introduction or broadening of CCB authorization may have potential to support more students of color, women in nontraditional fields, and older students.
Our analysis suggests that health care, IT, and business programs, at a minimum, have offered new opportunities for students who may not have otherwise pursued a baccalaureate degree. These programs also provide strong employment and earnings outcomes as compared to an associate degree or a baccalaureate from a regional university.
This descriptive analysis of CCB students and graduates in Florida and Washington indicate that some historically underserved groups may particularly benefit from CCB opportunities. Our data suggest that graduates of CCB programs are a nontraditional group. Additionally, our analysis indicates that CCB programs may serve as promising access points to baccalaureate degrees for students of color. The employment and wage data so far show there are similar outcomes for these students relative to university students, at least initially, which suggests that CCB is not tracking students away from a viable future but expanding opportunities for students who may not have otherwise pursued a bachelor’s degree.
CCB National Inventory
From April to October 2021, staff gathered information on authorized CCB programs of study from state agency public records, websites, and telephone interviews, as well as scans of institutional websites. Data included in this inventory address all authorized, approved, and/or actively implemented CCB programs in the 50 states, including field of study, type of bachelor’s degree (bachelor of arts versus bachelor of science, for example), and concentrations or tracks within each program. For more information, see Ivy Love, Debra Bragg, and Tim Harmon, Mapping the Community College Baccalaureate: An Inventory of the Institutions and Programs Comprising the Current Landscape (Washington, DC: New America, 2021).
In 2019, New America requested data from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) regarding CCB students and their labor market outcomes. The FLDOE shared aggregate data on associate and baccalaureate graduate outcomes in February 2020. FLDOE data cover 9,955 baccalaureate graduates and 24,933 associate of science graduates who earned their degrees in 2016–18. The data include graduates in six-digit CIP codes in which there was an associate degree program in the Florida College System (FCS) system with a matching CIP code. For example, there are associate degree and bachelor’s degree programs in respiratory therapy at FCS institutions; graduates of both levels of respiratory therapy program are included in the data used for this analysis. On the other hand, the supervision and management bachelor’s degree, which covers nearly one-third of CCB graduates in the state, is not included because there is no associate degree program in the FCS with a corresponding six-digit CIP code. Data in cells with fewer than 10 graduates were suppressed. FLDOE aggregated these data into two-digit CIP categories to reduce the likelihood of suppressed data; these two-digit CIP categories indicate what we refer to as the area of study.
Due to the large size of the nursing programs relative to other health care programs, the FLDOE disaggregated data on nursing graduates to the more specific six-digit CIP level, and these were analyzed separately from graduates of other allied health programs, which are smaller and include a variety of distinct occupations, such as radiation therapy and health care administration. In addition to data on overall outcomes by two-digit CIP, FLDOE further disaggregated the outcomes data by race/ethnicity, gender, and age group in separate spreadsheets, precluding cross-tabulations between any two demographic groups (e.g., race/ethnicity and age group).
Wage data from the FLDOE represented income during the fourth quarter after graduation. Figures represented here are annualized. Employment data also represent graduates’ status four quarters after graduation.
Qualitative data reported here is from interviews conducted by a team from the University of Washington who interviewed a total of 17 CCB students and graduates who attended six Washington community and technical colleges (Bellevue, Columbia Basin, Highline, South Seattle, North Seattle, and Green River) between November 2019 and May 2020, with some interviews extending into the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A further description can be found here.
Several different data sets, both publicly available and provided to us through formal data-sharing agreements from two different state agencies, were used for our analysis.
The demographic information in Figures 7, 8, and 9a is publicly available data from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).
For the comparison of CCB and university student demographics, our colleague, Grant Blume, relied on data from the Mutual Research Transfer Exchange data set that was provided via a formal data-sharing agreement with the SBCTC. This data set contained the records of 2,244 CCB graduates and 13,071 university graduates in the same six-digit CIP code. More information and a sample description are here.
For the completion data presented in Figure 10 we secured a custom data set through a formal data-sharing agreement with SBCTC that covered 4,162 CCB completers. More information here.
For our comparison of CCB and university graduate employment and earnings information we used data provided to the University of Washington by the Washington Education Research Data Center (ERDC). The data set provides aggregate data on labor market outcomes from the time Washington community and technical colleges began enrolling students in CCB programs in 2007 and graduating CCB students starting in 2009. This study samples CCB graduates through academic year 2017, which represents a period of extensive growth and maturation of CCB programs in Washington State. The sample represents 19 out of the 34 community and technical colleges that were graduating CCB students in at least one program area. The majority were conferring CCB degrees in more than one program area.
The sample was drawn from the total population of 3,560 CCB degree earners in Washington State from 2007–17. It was further culled to 2,345 to include graduates of four programs that have a comparable counterpart at any public regional university using matching six-digit CIP codes, yielding a comparison sample of 17,324 university students. The predominant program areas for both samples are business and health care. The community and technical colleges offer 28 baccalaureate degree options across the four program areas and the public universities offer 13 baccalaureate degree options across the same four areas.
The data file provided by the ERDC also included the “in-state covered employment match” using CCB graduate unemployment insurance (UI) records. Wage data were adjusted for inflation in 2017 dollars and computed in aggregate in the first quarter, fourth quarter, and 12th quarter after graduation. To provide more meaningful results on earnings, we annualized these quarterly data to reflect average annual earnings. Also, the ERDC disaggregated these employment and earnings results by race and gender. More information can be found here.
 Hillsborough College in Florida received approval to operate a bachelor’s program in nursing (not yet launched).
 See appendix for detailed information.
 Rural institutions are defined as those with Degree of Urbanization codes in IPEDS indicating “town” or “rural,” urban are those indicating “city,” and suburban are identified as those indicating location in a suburb.
 When referring to a two-digit Classification of Instructional Program (CIP), we use “area of study,” with the exception of nursing in our Florida sample, which was broken out from its two-digit CIP code and is considered separate. Meanwhile, we use “program of study” to correspond to the more granular six-digit CIP code.
 See data appendix for description of sample. Demographic analysis excludes nursing graduates, who were by far the largest group by area of study, considerably older than students in other areas of study, and overwhelmingly female, which could have skewed analysis.
 Unemployment insurance (UI) records identify whether an individual had a quarterly UI wage record maintained by the state of Washington, indicating a match that suggests someone is employed during a particular quarter. While UI wage records do not count certain types of employment (i.e. federal employees, the self-employed, or military) and provide limited detail about individual employment circumstances (i.e. not showing the difference between a full- or part-time), UI wage records are one of the only ways to measure employment.
 Students were matched by six-digit CIP code to ensure comparability of programs. There were 2,345 CCB graduates and 17,324 regional university graduates. See Elizabeth Meza and Debra Bragg, Comparison of the Employment and Earnings Outcomes of Washington Community College Baccalaureate Graduates and University Graduates, data note 8 for more information.
 Wages for Florida graduates here are annualized fourth quarter earnings.
 Florida data for nursing graduates is considered separately from other allied health graduates.
We are so grateful for the generous support of the Ascendium Education Group and the Joyce Foundation in this important work. Without their investment and trust, it would not have been possible.
We also thank our colleagues Grant Blume, Tim Harmon, Mary Alice McCarthy, Iris Palmer, and Lia Wetzstein. We are especially grateful to Debra Bragg for her generous mentorship and guidance throughout all research on community college baccalaureates leading up to and including this brief. We also acknowledge our excellent communications team.
We thank the Florida Department of Education and the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges for providing us with the data needed to conduct our analysis, and we also thank each CCB student and graduate who was interviewed in qualitative data collection.