WASHINGTON, D.C. – When it comes to measuring America’s post-secondary attainment rates, certificates often get short shrift in relation to degrees.
But a new groundbreaking report released Wednesday by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says certificates count for a lot more than many people may think, although results vary by ethnicity and gender.
The report – titled “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees” – found that certificate-holders often earn more than those with associate’s degrees and sometimes more than those with bachelor’s degrees.
“Certificates count when it comes to leveraging gainful employment in a variety of ways,” says the report, authored by Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce, along with Dr. Stephen J. Rose, a research fellow at the center, and research analyst Andrew R. Hanson.
Specifically, the report found that, while the average college degree holder earns more than workers with certificates, the average male with a certificate earns more than 40 percent of the men with associate’s degrees and 24 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees, while the average female with a certificate earns more than 34 percent of the women with associate’s degrees and 24 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees.
With roughly one million certificates being awarded each year and representing 22 percent of all postsecondary awards versus 6 percent in 1980, the authors also posit that the United States would be closer to the Obama administration’s goal of making the country the most college-educated nation in the world if certificates were factored into the equation—even if only those certificates with “clear and demonstrable economic value over high school diplomas” were counted.
Certificates could also be a boon to the nation’s college degree attainment rate because they serve as a gateway to actual degrees, the report found.
“Certificates vary widely in their benefits, but have the capacity to raise the country’s global educational standing by both encouraging further education and degree completion as well as by providing gainful employment,” the report states. “Two out of every three workers who have a certificate and a college degree earned the certificate first, an indication that certificates can serve as a stepping tone on the way to a college degree.”
However, the report comes with a few caveats, specifically, that the benefits of earning a certificate vary by ethnicity and gender. And Dr. Rose, a co-author of the report, says not much is known about whether degrees from for-profit colleges and public two-year colleges, which issue 45 percent and 51 percent of all certificates, respectively, yield the same results.
One caveat that deserves a big exclamation point, said Dr. Rose, is that the higher economic gains for certificate-holders take place when the certificate-holder actually works in the field in which his or her certificate was earned. The highest-paying fields tend to be in IT, business, and health care and some blue-collar jobs, such as aviation mechanics and those employed in drafting, Rose said.
“You have to be employed in the field to get the returns that would make it a very positive experience,” Rose said. “What we say in the report is, if you don’t work in the field, you don’t make much more than a high school (graduate).”
Also of note is that certificate holding “exhibits a clear racial and ethnic profile,” the report found.
For instance, the report found that Hispanics who earn certificates “get the biggest earnings boost over Hispanic high school graduates.”
The reason, Rose said, is because the wages of Hispanic high school graduates tend to be low, while they get an earnings boost of more than 40 percent from the certificate.
“Conversely,” the report states, “because White high school graduates do relatively well—particularly White men—they only receive a 20-percent earnings increase in spite of the fact that their certificate earnings are consistently higher than African- Americans and Hispanics.”
Although certificates are more concentrated among African-Americans than other racial and ethnic groups—one out of six compared with one out of nine for Hispanic, Asian and White Americans—African-Americans “get the smallest earnings boost,” the report found.
Rose said the reasons why need to be explored but it could be because credentials are distributed more widely among African-Americans.
The report also found a gender gap that exists “partly because men and women enter different fields of study, which have varied earnings returns.”
Specifically, the report found that women with certificates are concentrated in three fields: health care (38 percent), business/office work (27 percent), and cosmetology (20 percent), whereas men earned certificates in a broader spectrum of employment: auto mechanics, construction, electronics, transportation, and refrigeration, heating, and air conditioning.
The Georgetown report was hailed Wednesday for providing vital insights to the ongoing national discussion about the economic returns of a post-secondary education.
Jane S. Shaw, president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said she was “delighted” to see the report because she had heard about certificates but never knew how big of a role they played in higher education.
“The reason that the Pope Center is particularly interested in this is that we have been among those who have questioned whether every student ought to go to college and get a four-year degree, because we know that many try and don’t graduate at all,” Shaw said.
“And that’s very costly and so forth,” she said. “To see other alternatives developing is really good.”
Dewayne Matthews, vice president for policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation for Education, a funder of the Georgetown study, said report will help set the course for future discussions about how credentials should be counted and how they lead to gainful employment and further education.
“A lot of our work is gong to be focused on how to make sure these certificates are incorporated into a system of degrees and credentials that give everybody an opportunity to get further education and build on what they already know,” Matthews said. “That’s really key here. We don’t want any of these credentials to be a cul-de-sac or a dead-end.”
“We want everybody to have an opportunity to go further, to get more education and more skills,” he added.
Matthews said he anticipated criticism about the report’s push to count credentials when calculating America’s post-secondary education rate.
“We know this is an issue,” Matthews said. But he said the Georgetown report provides hard data on the economic returns of certificates and thus bolsters the case for why they should be counted.
“The Georgetown study has gone a long way in answering those questions,” Matthews said.