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Boosting paychecks without a degree

06/18/2012 - June 15, 2012 - by Jane S. Shaw

It seems as though every day we hear bad news about higher education. Tuition is rising, nearly 40 percent of all college students fail to graduate even in six years, and many of those who do graduate can't find jobs - yet are saddled with debt.

Thus, it is a surprise to get some good news - newly uncovered statistics that paint a more positive picture. They remind us that practical Americans find ways around problems. While young people continue to be pushed to get a college degree, some are finding alternatives that suit them better.

One of those alternatives is "certificates." These are credentials awarded for vocational programs that prepare students for specific jobs, in fields ranging from metal working to office management. Getting a certificate usually takes two years or less. It is cheaper than a four-year degree, for both students and taxpayers (federal grants and loans are available for certificate programs).

Certificates are a "homegrown American invention," say the authors of a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. They are a product of necessity rather than of tradition. Because they are offered mostly by community colleges and for-profit schools, they operate under the radar of the higher-education establishment, and they aren't even listed in most official statistics. (Two-year associate's degrees differ from certificates in that they generally are academic degrees and can be transferred to four-year programs.)

And their numbers are growing rapidly. More than 1 million certificates were awarded in 2010. (About 1.6 million bachelor's degrees were awarded that year.)

On average, getting a certificate increases wages by 20 percent above what a high school graduate would earn. And many certificate holders earn more than graduates who have associate's or bachelor's degrees. In computer and information services, average earnings for certificate holders are $72,498 per year for men and $56,664 for women.

There's a debate going on in this country over whether everybody ought to go to college. Though college should be available for all serious students, a four-year degree is not the route for everyone. Certificates offer those with a vocational interest opportunities for solid job prospects for less time and money (and thus lower debt) than do many four-year degrees. They show that people have more opportunities to pursue their self-interest than we often think.