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While most parents and educators are generally supportive of students pursuing nondegree pathways after high school, a new survey from American Student Assistance and Jobs for the Future shows that many lack information about the quality of the ever-increasing number of available programs.

To arrive at those conclusions, ASA and JFF commissioned Morning Consult, a research technology company, to survey 1,000 parents and 500 high school teachers and counselors during the summer of 2023. The findings were released today in a report titled “Beyond Degrees,” which also included results from a companion survey, conducted during the same time frame, of 1,100 students who have not gone to college.

“There’s still this information void that’s happening,” said Susan Acevedo-Moyer, co-author of the report and director of JFF’s Multiple Pathways Initiative. “Learners want to know from their parents what these options are. And the parents are actually relying on the educators to tell the learners about their options. It was interesting to see this dynamic of an ecosystem where parents have trust in educators to help their learners make viable decisions, but we know that’s not happening.”

Two out of three students surveyed who were not pursuing a microcredential, which includes certificates, apprenticeships and boot camps, said they would have considered getting a microcredential if they’d had more information.

Of the students who were pursuing a nondegree pathway, 67 percent of female respondents and 63 percent of male respondents said they went to their parents for guidance on which program to pursue. In contrast, 13 percent of female students and 20 percent of male students went to a high school counselor or mentor.

At the same time, the majority of parents said educators were their most trusted source to give their children support and guidance about postsecondary education, though only 26 percent of parents believed their children were “very prepared” to transition from high school to college and a career.

Only a quarter of all students surveyed, including those who were pursuing nondegree programs and those not pursuing any form of higher education, said their high school counselors were influential in their decision to pursue postsecondary education. However, 42 percent of the roughly half of parents who knew about microcredentials said educators were the primary information source for learning more about them.

Eighty-seven percent of parents said they thought their children would have some interest in learning more about microcredentials, and they said the most appealing aspects of nondegree pathways included the perception that they are low cost, take less time to complete than a degree and lead to employment with a good salary.

Educators support microcredentials as well. According to the survey, 79 percent had heard about nondegree pathways and 86 percent said they would approve of their students choosing to pursue a nondegree education pathway over attending a college or university.

But 35 percent said they thought employers favored applicants with degrees, and 33 percent said they didn’t know how to judge the quality of programs. Despite that hesitation, 84 percent of educators said they were interested in learning more about nondegree pathways.

“It’s not so much that educators are unaware of nondegree pathways. What they question, though, is whether or not employers are actually going to hire from these particular types of pathways,” Acevedo-Moyer said. “They feel it could be detrimental if they tell a student not to go to college and an employer doesn’t hire them because they don’t have a degree.”

Dearth of Data

The other piece of that hesitation is a dearth of information about the quality of these programs.

“We don’t have a ton of outcome data. We don’t know the efficacy of everything,” Acevedo-Moyer said. “So, again, that can make educators hesitant, because they want to make sure they’re setting students on the right path.”

Although microcredential programs have proliferated in recent years—especially those offered by third-party companies such as LinkedIn Learning—the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which is the federal government’s main higher education database, “has a little bit of a four-year bias” because it primarily tracks outcomes for first-time, full-time students, said Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“Many of the microcredential programs are by definition part-time. And students in them may not be first-time students, which makes it harder to track,” said Smith, who added that noncredit programs are especially difficult to track. “It can be difficult to get a good feel for the labor market returns on these programs.”

The survey also revealed that only 28 percent of parents would be disappointed if their child did not pursue a two- or four-year degree post–high school, which is in line with a other recent reports about an increase in public perceptions that getting a degree is not worth the cost.

While available outcomes data for microcredentials are sparse, a report from the Lumina Foundation released in January showed declines in the number of U.S. residents with industry certifications and college certificates earning at least 10 to 15 percent more than workers with only a high school diploma. The Center on Education and the Workforce also predicts that by 2031, 42 percent of jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree.

“Right now, we are in a tight labor market, which is good for an employee … If you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, you can still jump into the job market and do fairly well,” Smith said. “My concern is when the tides turn. The bachelor’s degree not only gives you more opportunity but also a little bit more stability in a marketplace that can fluctuate.”

Shalin Jyotishi, senior adviser on education, labor and the future of work for New America, a left-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank, said that in the context of limited data about nondegree pathways, one of the best ways to assess their quality is “stackability,” or students’ ability to apply the credential toward a degree—which typically means higher earnings—in the future.

“At their best, nondegree pathways will be affordable and faster education programs that lead to immediate employment, that leads to a job with at least a local living wage, that also sets up the recipient of that credential for lifelong learning leading up to a degree and beyond,” he said. “That is what I wish the field would focus on: How can we make stackable pathways a reality instead of a proposition? That is our best safety net against unproved programs.”

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