New Data on Nondegree Credentials

More than a quarter of Americans hold a nondegree credential, with 21 percent completing a work experience program, according to new federal data. And many of these credential holders have well-paying jobs.

September 14, 2017
 
Air-conditioning certificate students at Houston Community College

More than one-quarter of Americans hold a nondegree credential, such as a certificate or an occupational license or certification, according to new data from the federal government. And 21 percent have completed a work experience program such as an internship, residency or apprenticeship.

The new report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics is based on responses from 47,744 adults to a 2016 survey. Its goal, the department said, was to learn more about the prevalence of these credentials as well as to gauge perceptions about their value in the job market.

The new numbers arrive amid growing doubts from a broad swath of Americans about the value of a college degree.

Numerous studies show that a bachelor’s degree remains the best ticket to the middle class. Associate-degree earners also tend to do better in the job market than people with just a high school credential. However, racking up even a small amount of debt in college while not earning a degree often leads to loan default and related financial problems.

Against this backdrop, policy makers from both major parties increasingly are pushing noncollege job-training options. For example, the Trump administration is seeking an expansion of apprenticeships and has doubled federal funding for those programs to $200 million.

Federally registered apprenticeships, however, include college classroom work. And many of the “blue-collar” professions that politicians have been trumpeting as they complain about too much of a focus on traditional college -- welding is a commonly cited one -- typically require training at a community college or a vocational or trade school, including for-profits.

The federal survey found that 27 percent of working-age adults have earned a college certificate or a professional certification or license.

Among this group, 8 percent reported holding a certificate (a primarily educational credential), 18 percent hold a license and 6 percent a certification.

Certificate holders were most likely to work as administrative assistants (17 percent) or in health care (12 percent), followed by jobs in business management and operations, sales, manufacturing and farming, and grounds services. They are most likely to earn between $20,000 and $50,000 per year (42 percent), with 29 percent earning less than $20,000 and 29 percent earning more than $50,000.

Those findings jibe with previous research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which found college certificates to be the fastest-growing credential -- 22 percent of all college credentials issued in 2012, up from 6 percent in 1980.

The center’s report said certificate programs are relatively inexpensive, can typically be completed in a year or less, and pay off in the job market for most who earn them. However, women who hold certificates generally cluster in health care fields that pay less than IT, manufacturing or other professions where men who hold certificates tend to work.

Certificate holders typically are happy with their credential, according to results from the new federal survey.

Most respondents said their last postsecondary certificate was either very useful (49 percent) or somewhat useful (27 percent) in getting them a job. An even larger percentage (83 percent) said the certificate program had improved their work skills, while 58 percent said it was useful in increasing their pay.

Certifications and Licenses

Work credentials, meaning professional certifications or licenses, are most commonly held by adults who also have college degrees, the federal survey found.

Almost half of respondents with a graduate or professional degree (48 percent) reported holding a work credential, compared to 12 percent of respondents with a high school credential. Likewise, 23 percent of bachelor’s-degree holders have a license, 8 percent have a certification and 5 percent have a college certificate.

The two most common professions for certification holders are health care (17 percent) and business management and operations (14 percent). Other common jobs are in administrative support, education and library occupations, and sales. Relatively high-wage jobs on the list for certification holders include computer occupations (5 percent), financial specialists (4 percent) and scientists, engineers and architects (4 percent).

Fully half of certification holders reported making more than $50,000 a year, with a third making between $20,000 and $50,000, and 17 percent making less than $20,000.

License holders are most likely to work in health care (25 percent) and education and library occupations (16 percent), with business management and operations, sales, and administrative support rounding out the list. This group reported similar wages to certification holders, with 47 percent making more than $50,000.

On-the-Job Experience

The survey found that 21 percent of adults have completed a work-experience program. About half of those respondents (11 percent of the total) said those programs were of the paid variety. Types of represented programs included internships, co-ops, practicums, clerkships, externships, residencies, clinical experience or apprenticeships.

The most common type of reported work experience (14 percent) was part of an education program after high school. And 9 percent of respondents said their program included instruction, training or classes, and evaluation by a co-worker or supervisor. Just 1 percent participated in a state or federal apprenticeship.

The most common represented professions for work experience completers were in construction, installation and repair, administrative support, and sales.

The work-experience programs generally got high marks, with 64 percent reporting that it helped them get a job and 66 percent saying it was very useful for improving work skills. Additionally, 62 percent said the work experience credential was useful for increasing pay, compared to 38 percent who said it wasn’t.

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