ST. LOUIS — Experts say the economic downturn has a lot to do with a jump in enrollment at Missouri's community colleges.
About 5,000 more students enrolled in the state's community colleges this spring — up 5.9 percent from a year ago. Experts believe the trend is the result of the recession as cash-strapped Missourians seek cheaper alternatives to four-year colleges and universities. They expect enrollment to continue to climb this fall.
Meanwhile, a new study by, Natalia Kolesnikova, an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, indicates that having an associate's degree can boost lifetime earnings. The study found that men in the St. Louis region with an associate's degree make 11 to 13 percent more money than men in the region with only a high school diploma.
The returns are even higher for St. Louis women: Black women with an associate's degree make 43 percent more, on average, than peers with only high school diplomas; white women make 24 percent more.
Kolesnikova presented her findings Tuesday in St. Louis to an audience of community college and economic development officials.
Zelema Harris, chancellor of St. Louis Community College, said during a panel discussion after the presentation: "I think it's clear from this report that community colleges are a key to our economic recovery."
But the Fed report also highlights criticisms of community colleges: Only a small percentage of students transfer to four-year colleges, and a smaller percentage of them actually complete a bachelor's degree. About 29 percent of community college students transfer to four-year colleges, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Another troubling finding in Kolesnikova's study cites the persistent salary gap between those who have associate's degrees and those who start off at a four-year school, even when both groups go on to receive higher levels of education.
For example, a person with a professional degree who started with an associate's degree makes an average nationally of $70,349; someone with a professional degree who started off at a four-year school makes $79,491. The disparity has been referred to as a "community college penalty."
Kolesnikova cautioned that the salary disparity probably indicates that students who start at community colleges tend to be first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds. Community college students are likely to have come from elementary and junior high schools that were not as strong, she said.
"There is a resulting long-term effect so that even down the road, there is a difference," she said. "They don't catch up."
Harris said there may be other factors that account for the salary disparity. She pointed to another study that showed that the type of occupation — and not the kind of degree — determines salary level.
Neil Nuttall, president of North Central Community College and president of the Missouri Community College Association, said the enrollment increases at Missouri community colleges this year are the largest he can remember in a while.
"At my college, more students coming from area high schools are making us their first choice," he said.
Roughly 90,000 students attend Missouri community colleges. The Missouri Community College Association thinks that number could jump another 7 to 10 percent this fall.