California's community colleges have published the median earnings of graduates who went straight into the workforce after earning a certificate or associate degree -- pay that varies widely by the field of study.

Students interested in studying dramatic arts, for instance, can check the college system's Salary Surfer website and see the median earnings of degree holders were just $15,000 five years after graduating -- compared with $76,600 for those with a certificate in diagnostic medical sonography.

They can also click on a particular field to find which of the state's 112 colleges offer related programs.

"I do think it tells a very powerful story that's never been available before," said David Rattray, president of UNITE-LA, a nonprofit affiliate of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

One of the first of its kind, the new earnings database might soon be followed by similar initiatives. The federal government and student advocacy groups have been calling for colleges to release earnings information by major, so students don't make education decisions blindly.

Salary Surfer's trove of information has its limitations. It does not include those who were unemployed the year the data was collected, or those who were self-employed or working in the federal government or military. It also doesn't show whether the work was full- or part-time, or list the workers' actual occupation.

Still, the database offers students evidence of what might be available to them after they complete their programs -- and it might give them the extra motivation they need to persevere, said Helen Benjamin, chancellor of the Contra Costa Community College District.


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"I really think our students need something like this," she said.

The median pay of community college graduates in the analysis doubled two years after they completed an associate degree and nearly tripled after five years when compared to their pre-college earnings, said Brice Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

About 45 percent of the graduates tracked in a new database earned more than $54,000 five years after finishing their programs, the chancellor said.

The earnings data mirrors the findings of a recent Brookings report that half of all science, technology, engineering and math jobs were available to those without a four-year degree and paid an average of $53,000.

"The return on investment for our students is really remarkable," Harris.

The Salary Surfer database is at http://salarysurfer.cccco.edu/SalarySurfer.aspx.

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.