Study: Huge Increase of Americans Choosing Certificates

Published June 26, 2012

Americans are looking to certificates at an unprecedented rate as a quick, cost-effective way to better their wages and employment opportunities, according to a Georgetown University study.

According to the study, the number of certificates awarded has increased more than 800 percent over the past 30 years. In postsecondary education, the number of certificates awarded now comes second only to bachelor’s degrees, superseding associate’s and master’s degrees.

Certificates can be attained quickly, often within a year, and certificate holders earn 20 percent more than high school graduates without postsecondary education, according to the study.

“Employers now are looking for more validation that workers have the kind of skills that they want rather than just picking a generic worker and training that person on the job,” said Stephen Rose, a report author.

Securing Program Integrity
Certificates provide this kind of validation for employers, though Rose says the federal government is rightly examining certain programs through new “gainful employment” rules that evaluate each according to graduates’ job placement and debt.

If programs don’t meet federal criteria they receive two more years to increase performance or will no longer be eligible for Title IV federal funds.

“We need to do a better job of identifying which certificates have true value in the U.S. and which are frankly marketing ploys to get someone paying for a certificate when they don’t really need it,” said Steve Dewitt, a public policy director for the Association for Career and Technical Education.

Benefits for Workers
Faulty programs hurt the reputation of certificates that can benefit workers.

Depending on the field of study, certificate holders can earn more than associate’s and even bachelor’s graduates. In computer/information services, for example, women with certificates earn more each year than 75 percent of females with an associate’s and than 64 percent of women with a bachelor’s in the field.

On the other hand, women certified in cosmetology make less than the median high-school-educated woman.

“There is a 37 percent earnings difference between getting a job in your field and not,” Rose said. “I’d tell students to look at exactly what type of program you’re going into and evaluate earnings in that field as well as the school’s ability to place students in appropriate jobs.”

Hispanic workers particularly benefit from certificates, earning 40 percent more than high-school educated Hispanics, according to the study. One in six African Americans cite certificates as their highest level of education.

Path to Further Education
Certificates often act as a stepping stone to a college degree. According to the study, a third of people who receive certificates also earn a college degree.

Two out of every three workers who have a certificate and a college degree earned the certificate first.

Conversely, older workers with degrees earn certificates to make them more employable in an increasingly technical workforce. This is one in three certificate-earners.

“Most people change careers multiple times and certificates are a good way to do that,” Dewitt said.  “It may help you to get that promotion you need and move up a rung on the career ladder.”

Image by CTSenateDems.