Vocational certificates are the fastest-growing segment of higher education, reports the Wall Street Journal. From 2001 to 2011, the number of certificates of one year or less awarded by community colleges more than doubled.
Job seekers can earn a certificate quickly and cheaply, but the workforce value varies.
“There’s no question in my mind that the market is rewarding students who have technical skills that can be used to solve problems,” said Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and the president of College Measures, a company focused on U.S. higher education. “But too many of the one-year-or-less programs do not have good payoffs.”
“The certificate is a good choice for the low-middle of the high-school graduation class,” said Stephen Rose, a Georgetown University research professor who co-wrote a report on certificates last year. “But even if they can get really good at their job, they aren’t going to have other skills to move up.”
Short-term certificate holders earn 20 percent more than high school graduates — if they work in their field of training. Only 44 percent are working in their field, Rose found.
Some certificates pay very well. Men who earn certificates in computer and information services earn more than 72 percent of men with associate degrees and 54 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees. Women with computer certificates do even better.
Harper College in Illinois nearly doubled the number of certificates awarded from 2011 to 2012. More than 80 percent of short-term certificate earners in 2012 are employed; about half are working in their field.
Ken Pechtl, a recent high-school graduate, enrolled in a six-week summer course at Harper to become a certified nursing assistant before heading to the University of Pittsburgh in the fall. He sees the certificate program as a boost to his résumé and a way to earn extra cash at school next year.
Eric Chumbley, 24, of Lexington, Ky., paid $3,500 for a two-month certificate program that trained him to become a lineman for a utility company. Hired the day after graduation in 2009, he now makes about $54,000 annually.
Underemployed four-year graduates are enrolling in community colleges to learn job skills, reports the Chicago Tribune.
In 2010, Jessica Underwood graduated from Carthage College in Wisconsin “with a stellar academic record, a can-do attitude and a newly minted business degree.” Her bachelor’s degree was “just like a ticket to nowhere,” Underwood told the Trib. Despite sending as many as 10 job applications a day, she found only low-wage, low-skilled office, retail and telemarketing jobs.
Three years after graduation, Underwood decided that she needed to reboot — and fast. At the College of DuPage, she enrolled in the paralegal certification program, which offered a robust hiring outlook, but also the chance to reinvent herself in only 18 months.
She owes $60,000 in student loans for her business degree.
Illinois community colleges are touting accelerated programs to help the underemployed get a fresh start.
At Prairie State College, the “Career in a Year” campaign boosted enrollment by 50 percent in programs training home inspectors and dialysis and pharmacy technicians.
Harper College‘s launch of a “fast track” advanced manufacturing program — certification in one semester, followed by a paid internship with a partner company — attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
More than ever, companies want people adept at communicating, critical thinking and problem solving — all hallmarks of a liberal arts education. Studies continue to show that people with a four-year degree earn more, on average, over the course of their lifetime than those without college degrees. But employers say there’s often a mismatch between what traditional colleges are producing and what they need.
“Middle-skills” jobs, which require a certificate or associate degree, can qualify graduates for middle-class paychecks. Demand is high in health care fields, information technology and manufacturing, reports the Tribune.
Community college leaders are trying to double the number of graduates by 2020 to meet President Obama’s targets. It’s not easy, writes Stacy Collett in Community College Journal.
For administrators at Harper College in Illinois, 10,604 is the magic number—it’s the college’s share of the 5 million additional community college graduates President Obama challenged the nation’s two-year career and technical institutions to contribute to the economy by 2020. (That’s in addition to the college’s current trajectory of 21,000 credentialed students by 2020.)
Harper started by reaching out to students who were a few credits short of an associate degree. Some already had earned those credits at other institutions; others just needed a few classes. Now that the low-hanging fruit has been picked, raising the number of graduates will get harder.
“Many people working in community colleges still do not understand how abysmal our graduation rates or our student retention rates or course completion rates are,” says Angela Oriano, associate director at the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas at Austin.
Completion rates are up 125 percent at Snead State Community College (SSCC) in Alabama since it started a campaign encouraging students to “finish what you start.” The college redesigned orientation, eliminated unneeded requirements, such as speech and computer training, and even dropped a $15″cap and gown” fee.
When Cindy Miles became chancellor at California’s Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (GCCCD) in 2009, a dismal 3 percent of the 4,000 freshmen who entered the college in 2006 had earned a degree, yet 1,900 had successfully transferred to a four-year university by 2009.
“High numbers of transfer students who come to us don’t care if they get that degree,” Miles explains. “We’re trying to ascertain what the student’s version of success is, and we’re now trying to show value in the associate degree before they transfer.”
Four-year graduation rates are much higher for students who transfer with an associate degree.
The Roadmap Project at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pennsylvania helps students plan their college career and understand all the support services available. The first-year experience initiative includes mandatory orientation and success seminars, help from a success coach and access to walk-in “math cafés” staffed by faculty volunteers.
With the help of $2 billion in federal job training grants community colleges are helping students earn industry-recognized credentials that will show they’re ready for work, reports Community College Times.
Wichita Area Technical College (WATC) in Kansas is the leader of a consortium that will use its $14.9-million grant to develop industry credentials for the aviation industry. WATC and its partners — Tulsa Community College (Oklahoma), Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana), Guilford Technical Community College (North Carolina) and Edmonds Community College (Washington)—are all located near aviation manufacturing facilities, said Sheree Utash, vice president for academic affairs at WATC. The Wichita area, for example, has Spirit AeroSystems, Bombardier Learjet, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft plants nearby.
Aviation industry professionals will help develop the curriculum, which will be used by all colleges in the consortium.
The consortium will develop six stackable aviation credentials: sheet metal assembly, composite repair, computer numerical control (machining), electrical assembly, quality assurance and health and safety. The colleges will also create content for online courses and lab projects and implement transfer and articulation agreements.
Other community colleges are using federal grants to fund training in high-tech manufacturing. Harper College in Illinois is leading a statewide network that will create a curriculum leading to stackable, portable certificates in advanced manufacturing. Students will specialize in mechatronics/automation, numerical controls, metal fabrication and supply chain management/logistics.
After 14 years as a homemaker, Catherine Clarke left her husband because of domestic violence. With four children to support, she enrolled at Harper College in Illinois, taking advantage of help for single parents and displaced homemakers, reports Community College Times. The college’s Rita and John Canning Women’s Program teaches test-taking and study skills, provides career counseling and helps women build their self-esteem and networks.
With the help of scholarships and grants, Clarke graduated from Harper with a 4.0 grade-point average and went on to Elmhurst College. She hope to work as a counselor.
“When you look at the risk factors for people not being able to graduate college, low-income single moms have just about all of them,” said Meegan Bassett, senior policy associate for Women Employed. However, single mothers also are highly motivated, she said.