Good news for new high school graduates who don't think college-level algebra or freshman English is their thing. A study released Wednesday finds that certificates awarded through short-term vocational training programs can reap a bigger payoff than a bachelor's degree.
The devil, of course, is in the details. It's more true for men than women, for Hispanics than blacks. And technology fields are more lucrative than, say, cosmetology. But generally, short-term degree programs that focus on specific occupations can be "the fastest, cheapest way to get a job that pays," says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Certificates also have grown in popularity, particularly in the South and West, says the report, based on four federal data sets. One million certificates were awarded in 2010, up from 300,000 in 1994, the researchers found. Of all college degrees and credentials awarded in 2010, they calculated that certificates represented 22%.
Yet the credential is rarely counted in government surveys looking at educational attainment, the report notes.
"This an element that deserves more focus and attention than it's gotten," says Jamie Merisotis, president of the non-profit Lumina Foundation, which is seeking to increase the number of Americans who complete college degrees — or other credentials beyond the high school diploma.
Typically offered through community or technical college, for-profit college or nonprofit organization, certificate programs typically recognize completion of a course of study based on a specific field, such as auto mechanics, drafting and electronics. They don't usually involve industry-based exams to prove mastery of a particular skill.
The center's analysis confirms that average earnings for U.S. workers increased as their level of education rises. On average, workers who hold a certificate earned 20% more than workers with only a high school diploma. But certificate-holders earned more than some workers holding bachelor's degrees:
•Male certificate holders earn more than 40% of men with associate's degrees and 24% of men with bachelor's degrees. Female certificate holders earn more than 34% of women with associate's degrees and 24% of women with bachelor's degrees.
•Men who work in computer and information services earn about $72,500 a year, which is more than what 72% of men with an associate's degree and 54% of men with a bachelor's degree earn. Women in that same field earn $56,664, which is more than what 75% of women with an associate's degere and 64% of women with a bachelor's degree earn.
•Students who enroll in certificate programs and have lower standardized test scores earned slightly more on average ($34,946 vs. $34,624) than students with some college, but no academic degree.
About a third of certificate holders eventually earn either an associate's or bachelor's degree, the study shows. It also suggests that more employers are placing a higher value on short-term credentials, says Jonathan Robe, spokesman for the non-profit Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "My takeaway (from the study) was there are a lot of students who are looking for alternatives to traditional college education," he says.