With a national debate underway over whether the federal government should guarantee free community college for all Americans, a new study of Massachusetts students provides strong evidence of just how valuable two-year colleges can be to students’ future employment and earnings.

Those graduating with a two-year associate’s degree from Massachusetts community colleges had earnings that were 31 percent higher than their peers who only completed high school, according to the study, while those obtaining a community college certificate — a credential in a specific field without a full, two-year degree — saw earnings that were 26 percent higher than high school graduates. Even completing at least two semesters of community college without getting a degree or certificate led to a modest 2 percent earning premium for those who were in the workforce. Average annual earnings were $29,700 for degree recipients, $28,600 for those with a certificate, and $22,600 for those with only a high school diploma.

“There is real labor market value to these certificates and to associate’s degrees,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs and economics at Northeastern University and co-author of the report, which was released Thursday.

The study, sponsored by The Boston Foundation, Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, and the nonpartisan think tank MassINC, looked at the labor market experience of nearly 58,000 Massachusetts students who graduated from high school over a  three-year period roughly a decade ago and had not gone beyond community college by 2018.

Lots of research has shown that earning levels are closely related to education, with higher income associated with each increasing level of postsecondary degree attainment. But many of these studies don’t tease out the actual impact of higher education. Those with better K-12 academic preparation, for example, who are more likely to pursue college degrees, are also likely to earn more in the labor market apart from whatever higher ed credential they obtain.

The new study, using educational attainment and wage data now available through a state system, sought to zero in on the actual impact of community college studies by comparing students to peers who had similar academic and attendance records in high school but did not go on to higher education.


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