Current and prospective students in California's 112 community colleges can for the first time browse the median earnings in a particular career field with a new website that collects data from graduates across the state.
The so-called "Salary Surfer" website uses the aggregated earnings of community college graduates from a five-year period to estimate a person's potential salary two and five years after earning a certificate or degree. The data does not contain earnings for students who transferred to a four-year university, those who are self-employed or work for the federal government.
The website's data shows that after five years, nearly 45 percent of students who completed an associate degree earned more than $54,000 – the median income for a California resident with a bachelor's degree.
A registered nurse, for example, can expect to earn about $67,000 two years after graduating, and nearly $79,000 after five years.
But those who received credentials in other areas are earning far less, the data shows. Two years after graduating, a dental laboratory technician's average annual salary is $20,665, and then drops to $13,454 after five years.
Such data could point prospective students in a different direction when choosing a field of study.
"While future earnings should not be the sole determiner in choosing an educational program, students and the public deserve to know what monetary return they can expect from their investment," said system Chancellor Brice Harris during a press conference.
Helen Benjamin, chancellor of the Contra Costa Community College District, said during the press conference that the tool is also meant to motivate students by giving them evidence of what might be available to them after completing their programs.
"I really think our students need something like this," she said.
California is one of the few states in the country to offer such data. When President Barack Obama announced the release of his administration's "College Scorecard" in February, many higher education administrators gave the tool mixed reviews, largely because it does not yet include annual earnings data for college graduates. The tool also presents certain information in a way administrators said could be confusing for students.
Those sentiments prompted other colleges to create their own versions of the scorecard. The California Community College system did so in April when it launched its "Student Success Scorecard," though earnings data was not included. The Salary Surfer website now gives students the opportunity to fill in those gaps.
"This groundbreaking tool validates that California community colleges produce a tremendous return on investment for our state," Harris said.