When the Lumina Foundation issued an update in April on the nation's progress toward reaching higher rates of degree completion by 2025, there was a new data point added to the equation -- certificates.
By adding the percentage of Americans who have completed a certificate, the foundation saw an effect on data from states that have focused on increasing workforce development, particularly at community colleges. The completion rates went up in those states.
Take Louisiana, for instance, where the Lumina report on college completion found the largest percentage of working adults who hold a "high-quality" certificate as their highest level of credential. The change increased the state's standing in the annual report from dead last in the country to No. 26.
By including certificates, the Lumina report revealed that the percentage of Louisiana's residents with a college credential stood at 44.7 percent in 2014 compared to 29.6 percent in 2013, the last year certificates weren't included in the calculations. That increase is due to the 15 percent of adults in Louisiana with a "high-quality" certificate.
"There have been changes at a fundamental level in higher education and in how people pursue education that many of us involved in the discussion over the last few decades didn't appreciate because we didn't live it," said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. "It's gone beyond the point of argument. There has been this debate for well over a decade about the value of less than an associate degree, and I think the discussion is over by looking at the data. The number of students pursuing those credentials and their earnings and wages says to us there's no longer an argument."
Three other states -- Arizona, Kentucky and New Mexico -- saw significant gains in their credential-holder rates due to high numbers of certificates earned.
"The evidence points to something real going on. All four states produce a lot of certificates and they all have big community college systems that offer certificates and a lot of jobs in those states correspond to those certificates," said Dewayne Matthews, vice president of strategy development at Lumina.
Because it was the first year the foundation considered this type of attainment, they had to determine what type of certificate would qualify as high quality. The resulting definition began with the belief that a high-quality certificate is one that has a clear learning outcome that leads to further education and employment. Lumina consulted with Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce to help develop the employment side of that definition.
At the center, researchers determined that a high-quality certificate gets a student a job with earnings 20 percent above the median wage for holders of high school diplomas, said Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and the center's director. The center didn't distinguish whether a certificate was considered short term or long term based on the number of credits required or weeks taken to earn it.
Carnevale also said the measurement only includes certificates from colleges and not industry-based certifications, which means they could be underestimating the true impact of these credentials on the economy.
"It gets tougher when you get outside the degree space, which is very large in the American system. There's a lot of things still not in these numbers -- industry-based certifications, non-credit-based education -- and in the case of industry-based certifications, they almost universally bring earnings returns," he said.
Certificates and the Louisiana Economy
The commonly held notion of higher education being a one-shot experience that lasts a few years depending on how much fun a student had in pursuing a bachelor's degree is not the experience of most community college students, Sullivan said.
"Most of our community college students are getting in and jumping out to improve their lives," he said, adding that they "go to work and then they return for that next credential."
In some states, the economy is driven toward bachelor's or associate degrees. But in Louisiana, where many jobs are focused around fossil fuels and other technical industries, the economy often means that seven technicians support two positions that require a bachelor's degree and those, in turn, support a professional with a graduate-level degree, Sullivan said.
The average student at a Louisiana community college is about 27 years old. They're an older population less interested in going to college to pursue longer-term credentials. But they are interested in credentials that will get them higher wages, Sullivan said.
Part of that growth is due to changes the state has made to embrace certificates. In the last 10 years, Louisiana has worked closely with its workforce commission to identify the occupational demands across the region and to focus the state's resources on the training needed to fill those demands. They were able to drill down and learn that the occupations with the highest demand and wages were in construction, welding, computer science, process production, industrial maintenance, finance and accounting.
"We cut hundreds of programs in Louisiana over the last eight years, yet … we have the largest graduating class year after year," Sullivan said, adding that the average graduate is earning just under $40,000 a year, but in the top occupations that figure increases to $55,000 a year. Last year, the state set a record by graduating more than 21,000 students from the two-year system.
Some certificates may prove more valuable, over the course of a career, than an associate or bachelor's degree. While the idea that more education leads to higher earnings still holds true, more often than not, lifetime earnings are determined by the field of study, Carnevale said.
So someone with a certificate in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning will average $70,000 a year over the course of their career compared to someone with a general studies bachelor's degree, who will average $55,000 a year over the course of their career, he said.
The Effect of More Certificates
Researchers are still figuring out the implications of the large number of certificates being earned and what it means in places where certificates don't carry as much weight.
"Rhode Island and Massachusetts have very low certificate-attainment rates. Are there gaps in their education programs? Are there potential student populations that are underserved and hidden by the overall high rates of degree attainment in those states? Does it reflect differences in regional economies? We don't know enough to answer those questions," Matthews said.
And while there certainly are certificates that don't have much labor market value, like ones in cosmetology or truck driving, colleges are recognizing that these early credentials can help bridge the path to further education, he said.
"We do think certificates and certifications could be a key element to creating these systems that could potentially fit millions of Americans who don't fit the profile of a traditional college student, but who have a need for postsecondary learning," Matthews said.
Last year the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released data showing the percentage of graduates who had previously earned a certificate. In the 2014 school year, 1.4 percent of bachelor's degree earners had previously earned a certificate. Among associate degree recipients, 8.1 percent had a prior certificate. And among certificate earners, 9.3 percent had a previous certificate -- 6.5 percent held an associate degree, nearly 8 percent had a bachelor's and 3 percent held a graduate degree.
That last stat has proven somewhat of a quandary for researchers who want to find the value of stackable certificates.
"Sometimes a state has a lot more certificates because they took one [area of study] and turned it into five," Carnevale said, adding that one certificate may have value but the question remains how much value is then placed on the other stacked certificates.
When it comes to reaching Lumina's goal for 60 percent of Americans to hold a degree or meaningful certificate by 2025, advocates of certificates shouldn't expect those credentials alone to help the nation further reach that achievement.
Nationally, 4.9 percent of Americans hold a certificate, according to Lumina.
"While these numbers are sizable and … it gets us that much closer to 60 percent, in no way will you get to 60 percent through these credentials. We've looked and it doesn't work," Matthews said. "It's an important piece of the puzzle, but there's still a large gap to our attainment goal and the goal our nation is focused on."
Sullivan said the discussion should now focus on the appropriate mix of people with credentials, bachelor's and associate degrees.
The numbers suggest that college officials, employers and policy makers need to have a better sense of people's complex education and employment experiences. That could mean creating better and more complex pathways that integrate prior learning and competency-based education and connect curriculum, area studies, majors, certificates, degrees and the labor force, Matthews said, adding that the country is struggling with creating stronger pathways between associate and bachelor's degrees.
"We'll see that become much more important as people realize it's not just about your initial degree or initial credential," he said. "It's about a lifelong learning process, and we need to think about how it integrates everyone working together to empower people to develop the lives they want."
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