Low-cost, ‘high-value’ certificates rise in popularity

Vocational certificates, which promise a low-cost fast track to a better job, are rising in popularity, according to a new Center on Education and the Workforce study. More than 1 million certificates were awarded in 2010, making up 22 percent of postsecondary awards. The average certificate-only workers — about 11 percent of the workforce — earns 20 percent more than a worker with only a high school diploma.

In addition to raising income, “certificates can also serve as the first rung on the ladder to a college degree related to one’s training,” the report says.

At a time when 36 million American workers who attended college did not complete a degree, certificates are piecemeal, attainable, bite-sized educational awards that can add substantially to postsecondary completion.

High-value certificates leading to higher earnings should be tracked to give a more accurate picture of postsecondary achievement, Georgetown urges.

Earlier studies have found few benefits to short-term certificates that take less than six months to complete, but the Georgetown study found some short-term certificates also lead to wage gains.  In some fields, a certificate holder can earn more than a worker with an associate degree — and sometimes more than a four-year college graduate.

On average, certificate holders earn 20 percent more than high school-educated workers – about $240,000 over a high school diploma in lifetime earnings. More than 60 percent of certificates have a clearly demonstrated economic payoff over high school diplomas—i.e., earnings 10 percent higher than the median high school graduate. Moreover, even when certificates don’t provide much of an earnings boost, they can make individuals more employable, giving them access to valuable learning on the job.

After adjusting for academic preparation, “certificates look even better,” the report finds. Certificate-only workers score lower in academic skills but earn about the same compared to workers with some college but no degree.

The certificate payoff is greater for men than women, largely because of gender segregation, the report observes.

Certificates also have become popular with people who’ve earned an associate, bachelor’s or even a graduate degree, the report found. One third of people earning certificates already hold an academic degree but want to improve their job skills.

As the “is college worth it?” debate rages, the value of vocational certificates has been ignored, says Anthony Carnevale, co-author of the Georgetown report. The “college for all” push is seen as “a four-year college for all.”  When certificates are counted, the nation is closer to meeting President Obama’s college completion goals, Carnevale told Inside Higher Ed.

The completion push is really about “postsecondary education and training for all,” said Carnevale. But “that doesn’t fit on anybody’s bumper sticker.”

Community colleges award 52 percent of certificates with for-profit colleges close behind at 44 percent.