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Postsecondary Certificate Programs Can Offer Upward Mobility and Help Meet 2020 Goal, Report Says

WASHINGTON – Certificate programs could go a long way in helping colleges and universities meet President Barack Obama’s 2020 goal to significantly increase the number of students earning postsecondary credentials, a new report says. According to “Certificates Count: An Analysis of Sub-baccalaureate Certificates,” released by the Washington-based Complete College America organization on Tuesday, such programs also could help states build a skilled workforce tailored to meet the specific needs of local employers.

The most recent available data show that approximately 750,000 certificates were awarded in 2007-08; a little more than half of those were awarded by community colleges. Brian Bosworth, the report’s author, said that certificate programs that take at least one year to complete enable students to enter the workplace quickly and build a foundation for future success by giving them the confidence they need to pursue further academic study. Certificates also can generate the same earning potential as an associate’s degree, which takes two years to complete, particularly in health care fields, which account for 43 percent of all certificates.

“Certificates for programs of one year or more demonstrate solid labor market returns. In some cases they demonstrate labor market returns equal to associate degree gainers. In a few isolated cases they demonstrate [returns] equivalent to some bachelor’s degree completers,” Bosworth said during a panel discussion event for the Complete College America report.

The report highlights research in Kentucky that found that increases in average income for individuals who earned certificates of at least one year were almost identical to those of people holding associate degrees, at a rate of 40 percent for women who had earned either a certificate or an associate degree, while men saw an increase of about 20 percent. The report also recommends that the U.S. aim to double the number of long-term certificates produced within the next five years and then again in the subsequent five years. But, it warns, short-term certificates that take less than a year to complete offer significantly less earning potential but can sometimes be what certain individuals need to jumpstart their pursuit of postsecondary credentials.

Bosworth said that federal and state authorities need to understand the important role that certificates can play in increasing postsecondary attainment goals. The report says that states should collect and rigorously analyze data on labor market returns of certificate programs and provide external oversight to ensure that they are contributing to high-demand occupations. It also calls for federal and state policymakers to work with colleges to improve certificate completion rates.

“They’re an underappreciated and underdeveloped potential to contribute to state, national and college level targets. They should be defined consistently, and they should be counted on a uniform basis,” Bosworth said. He predicted that there are likely to be a greater increase in the number of long-term certificate awards than in associate and bachelor’s degrees.

Bosworth also said that the opportunity to earn a certificate that will ultimately lead to career advancement is especially important for the kinds of individuals who have not yet earned any sort of postsecondary credential because they weren’t academically prepared for college or come from socioeconomic groups that have historically been underserved by elementary and secondary institutions and whose access to college is limited.

“They also have considerable potential for meeting the needs of working adults who left high school some years back or who may have briefly tried college and decided it was not for them or didn’t try college at all and now find themselves in a labor market where their lack of postsecondary training limits their employment,” Bosworth said. In addition, he said, certificate programs could be an important tool to help individuals complete an associate or bachelor’s degree, and he called for better alignment between certificate and associate degree programs.

Panelist Stephen Wing, president of Corporate Voices for Working Families, agreed. He said that earning a certificate can build confidence and encourage people to go on to the next step, particularly when they find themselves moving up the career ladder. He also urged businesses to play an active role in partnering with colleges as they develop their certificate programs. Wing, who is a former CVS Caremark executive, said that CVS would actually set up mock pharmacies at schools for pharmacy tech programs.

“Partnership between business and community colleges is imperative,” he said.

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