A recent report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that the number of certificates earned at public and private two-year colleges has increased drastically in the past 30 years—from attainment by less than 2% of the 18+ population in 1984, to attainment by nearly 12% of the population in 2009. The study, “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees,” examined only vocational, technical, trade, and business certificates rather than baccalaureate and master’s level certificates.
Nearly one-fourth of all 23- to 65-year-old workers surveyed said they had attended a vocational, technical, trade, or business program after high school. Of those, 75% earned a certificate. Overall, 18% of workers considered to be of prime age hold a certificate. One-third of them also hold an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree as their highest educational attainment.
The study found that on average, certificate holders earn 20% more than high school graduates with no post-secondary education, but the return on investment varies by field of study, student experience, and the student’s gender, race, and ethnicity. Certificate holders who work in their field of study earn 37% more than those who don’t work in their field; one who works outside of his field of study makes only 1% more than someone with no certificate in the same field.
While many have said that short-term certificates carry little economic value, authors of this report suggest evidence to the contrary: the seemingly low earnings attained by short-term certificate holders is reflective of the prevalence of healthcare certificates, which have atypically low returns on investment. Healthcare certificates aside, program length plays little role in the recipient’s return on investment.
Perhaps most surprisingly, holders of certain degrees earn more than others in their field with more advanced education. In general, 39% of male certificate holders earn more than the median male with an associate degree, and 24% earn more than the median male with a bachelor’s degree. Men with certificates not only earn more than women with certificates, but also receive a higher wage premium from a certificate over a diploma. Computer and information services, electronics, and business and office management are the most lucrative fields for certificate holders.
The study also examined who the average certificate holder is: 23% of recipients earned their certificates right after high school; 21% earned it between age 20 and 22, and 22% earned it between age 23 and 29. The others seemingly earned certificates to further an existing career or retrain for another occupation, by workers over age 30.
Finally, the study determined that if such certificates were included in government statistics of educational attainment, the United States would become 10th internationally in post-secondary attainment, rather than 15th, where it currently stands.
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