College grads with work-based learning more likely to land jobs—but see mixed results on earnings

A new study of work-based learning by CCRC finds promising outcomes for four-year grads, but less clear-cut ones for two-year grads.

College graduates who participate in work-based learning are more likely to land a job than are their peers who don’t have such experiences. And four-year graduates with work-based learning experiences also earn more in their first three years out of college—although the same is not true for two-year graduates.

Those are the top findings of a new working paper from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University.

The report mined the transcript data of first-time students who entered a large, diverse college system from 2004-05 to 2013-14 and focused on those who ultimately graduated. It then linked that information with employment and earnings data from the state labor department to assess the impact of work-based learning on career outcomes.

“The results suggest that work-based coursetakers have better chances of being employed after college graduation than non-takers,” says Rachel Yang Zhou, the report author and a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business who formerly worked as a senior research assistant at CCRC. 

“Work-based courses can provide an opportunity for all students to participate in experiential learning in college—this may serve as an equity tool in both higher education and the post-college labor market,” she says. 

The big idea: The research helps inform an ongoing debate about the role colleges can and should play in preparing students for work and in increasing economic mobility. Students are increasingly questioning the value of higher education, in part because they don’t see its relevance to the world of work. Policymakers also have heightened their focus on the employment and earnings outcomes of graduates. 

Source: “Understanding Experiential Learning Through Work-Based College Coursetaking,” CCRC Working Paper No. 131, February 2023.

Work-based learning—which brings internships, real-word business projects, and other work experiences into the classroom—is one answer to those concerns. And interest in the approach has exploded, although the majority of institutions still don’t do it consistently or across most academic fields.

  • In the CCRC study, 31% of two-year completers and 29% of four-year grads took a work-based learning course. Almost all the courses at both types of institution were credit-bearing.

Women participated in work-based learning at higher rates than men, and Latino and Black students also were more likely than their white and Asian American peers to have taken such courses. There also was wide variation in work-based learning by field, with the arts, humanities, and social sciences generally seeing the highest levels and the STEM fields the lowest.

The impact? 

Among four-year graduates, the study found positive results on both employment and earnings for work-based learners, but the story for two-year graduates is more mixed.

  • For two-year completers, the probability of being employed in the first year after graduation is 4.3 percentage points higher for students who took work-based courses than for those who did not—or a difference of 71.2% employment versus 66.9%.
  • In subsequent years, work-based learners are still more likely to be employed, but the effect is no longer statistically significant.

Among four-year completers, in contrast, the positive impact on employment rates—4.4 percentage points in the first year—is similar but lasts through year three after graduation. The real differences show up in earnings.

  • Four-year graduates who did work-based learning earned more than their peers who did not through the first three years after completing college.
  • Among two-year graduates, however, there was no statistically significant difference between the first-year earnings of students who did work-based learning and those who did not, and in some later years work-based learners actually earned less.

What’s going on? 

First, a note of caution: The study employed a matching technique that controlled for many factors, including student race, gender, age, and major. But students were not randomly assigned to work-based courses, and therefore the study couldn’t fully control for all factors that might set apart students who chose to take such courses and those who did not.

In short: Its findings show correlations, Zhou says, not that work-based learning necessarily causes the observed differences in employment and earnings.

What this means: Zhou says this is especially a concern when interpreting the data on two-year graduates—in part because such a high percentage of community college students work part-time or full-time jobs off campus. Here are three reasons why earnings might be lower for work-based learners at community colleges:

  • Other work options: More than 40% of community college students who would go on to complete a degree were already working in their first semester in college, and 12% were working full time. These other work commitments likely have an impact on whether students choose to participate in work-based courses, but Zhou says the available data couldn’t fully account for that. And even though outside jobs aren’t integrated into coursework, they may still develop career skills that boost students’ earnings.
  • Programs aren’t all the same: Zhou’s analysis matched students based on standardized program areas (using CIP codes)—but within those buckets, there can still be a lot of variation in the specific focus, design, and expected labor market outcomes of programs.
  • Post-grad plans: Many community college graduates transfer to four-year institutions, enter apprenticeships, or go into unionized sectors where lower wages may be offset by higher non-wage benefits. All those could suppress earnings. Zhou was able to account for transfer within the college system, but couldn’t account for students who continued their education elsewhere or pursued those other paths.

“I therefore encourage cautious interpretations about the results of lower earnings at two-year institutions,” Zhou says.

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