The Certificate Solution

New analysis suggests increased emphasis on non-degree training may be key to getting more Americans the postsecondary education they need to land jobs.
December 7, 2010

A key goal of the Obama administration has been to create an environment in which every American receives at least one year of postsecondary education. One year is a notable time frame as that it doesn't correlate with an associate degree or a bachelor's degree. A report being issued today suggests that the United States needs to follow that cue and focus on a form of education that comes in a range of durations -- the certificate.

The report, issued by Complete College America and prepared by FutureWorks, argues that it may be more viable for many Americans with limited time to earn a certificate than to earn a college degree. And the report notes that while those who take some courses toward a degree but do not finish are unlikely to gain much economically from their efforts, there is substantial evidence that certificates do advance people economically.

Certificates are a "too often underutilized strategy," the report says, "but one that can deliver greater income returns than associate and even some bachelor's degrees."

In 2007-8, just under 750,000 certificates were awarded in the United States, the report says, 41.6 percent at community colleges and 42.2 percent at for-profit institutions, with the remainder coming from other sectors. Across sectors, by far the top field for certificates is health care, which was the focus of 41.2 percent of all certificates, followed by business (10.9 percent), mechanical (8.5 percent) and security (5.6 percent).

While promoting the value of certificates, the report argues that research shows that "all certificates are not created equal," and that there are significant advantages economically for those who enroll in long-term programs (duration of one year or longer). For instance, studies by Kentucky officials found that individuals in that state who earned certificates of at least one year saw increases in their income "nearly identical" to the gains associated with earning an associate degree.

The report -- not surprisingly given that its sponsor was a group focused on college completion -- repeatedly stresses the importance of finishing programs. And it suggests that this is a key advantage of certificate programs at some institutions. At many institutions that focus on certificates, completion rates are much higher than at other institutions.

Despite evidence that certificates help recipients find jobs or better paying jobs, the report notes policy and educational concerns. Some of the most rapid certificate enrollment gains in recent years, the report says, have been in short-term programs, not the long-term programs that yield the greatest economic gains. While short-term programs "may be helpful in updating the skills of adult workers who are well launched in their occupations and who have good earnings history," the report says that "there is much room for skepticism about their labor market value for young adults, or for older and dislocated workers."

Further, the report describes state approaches to certificates as "seemingly haphazard" with "striking variation" among states.The report says that, on a per-capita basis, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Arizona and Kansas produce 10 to 15 times as many certificates as do Hawaii, Nevada, Montana and every Northeastern state.

But producing more certificates doesn't necessarily mean that they are the best certificates. States like Kentucky and Louisiana "produce large numbers of less valuable, short-term credentials" while other states -- such as Wyoming, Oklahoma and Arkansas -- see more of their certificates in long-term programs.

The report offers a series of suggestions for policymakers, urging them to:

  • Include certificates in plans for postsecondary completion, defining certificates in consistent ways.
  • Set "aggressive" goals for certificate completion.
  • Use funding formulas and other policies to reward long-term programs and to discourage "shorter-term programs that lack significant labor-market payoffs."
  • Collect more data about certificates and the alignment of programs with the labor market.
  • Focus on completion issues.


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