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The importance of post-secondary certificates


POLITICO - July 31, 2012

As the debate rages about the value of college, another education option is finally getting well-deserved attention. Post-secondary certificates are putting significantly more Americans on an affordable pathway to gainful employment, according to a new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, co-funded by the Lumina Foundation. This is good news for our economy, and policymakers should take notice.

Post-secondary certificates are a uniquely American invention. They are awarded by public institutions or private for-profit trade schools for completing studies in a specific field — like computer and information services, office management, health care or food services. The number of graduates with certificates has skyrocketed more than 800 percent over the past 30 years, though few of our leaders appear to know very much about this.

Part of the problem is that certificates are rarely counted in government education reports. That should change, however, because certificates have become the fastest growing form of post-secondary credential awarded in our country over the past few decades.

Certificates hold tremendous promise for expanding our skilled workforce and are increasingly popular for a variety of reasons. They are relatively cheap — with net costs ranging from roughly $6,780 to $19,635. Which is far less than even one year at some colleges. Certificate courses can also be completed quickly and then can pay off more than many two-year degrees and sometimes more than four-year degrees.

Certificates usually take less than two years to complete, and more than half take less than one year. That means certificate holders can move quickly from the classroom to the workforce — which helps explain why more than 1 million certificates were awarded in 2010. Up from 300,000 in 1994.

In addition, certificate holders earn 20 percent more on average than high school-educated workers — which can mean about $240,000 more than a high school diploma in lifetime earnings. But many certificate holders can earn more than workers with degrees from a two-year college, and some earn more than those with bachelor’s degrees.

For example, in computer and information services, male certificate holders can earn $72,498 per year — more than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent with a Bachelor of Arts.

Certificates have also set workers on a path to higher education, serving as the first step toward a college degree. That has proved particularly true for low-income, minority and immigrant Americans, often the first in their families to attend college.

More than 30 percent of certificate holders continue their education to get an associate’s degree, and almost 13 percent get a bachelor’s degree. Even as education costs are going through the roof, a certificate is one way to make enough money to afford a higher degree.

This makes certificates an increasingly important steppingstone to continuing employment in America, where greater skills are required to compete in our knowledge-based economy. Certificates can also offer a jump-start into the labor market for the millions of Americans now unemployed or underemployed.

It’s important, however, to note that not all certificates are created equal when it comes to earning power and opportunity. Much of the value is tied to being in the right field.

For men, certificates in computer and information services, heating and air conditioning, drafting, aviation and electronics provide the greatest return. For women, fields connected to computer and information services and business or office work offer the highest earnings.

As we debate the best path forward for post-secondary education, it’s time the humble certificate got the recognition it deserves. These credentials matter to our economy and our citizens. They need to become part of our national dialogue about how to more effectively deliver education beyond high school to more Americans.

Too often, our leaders view post-secondary education through the narrow lens of when they were in a four-year college. A far broader view is required to lead on these complex issues today — and the rapid growth of certificates is just one example of why a one-size-fits-all approach to higher education won’t serve us well as a nation.

If we intend to improve our ability to compete for jobs in the global economy, we need to get significantly more Americans prepared for the workforce of the future. That means increasing the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by the year 2025.

Certificates with economic value must play a big role in this. That starts by counting them in our government reports on post-secondary attainment.

Anthony Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, which seeks to help graduate more students from college — especially low-income and first-generation students.