College & Workforce Readiness

College Talk: Certificates Are Hot

By Catherine Gewertz — June 14, 2012 2 min read
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Unless you’ve been napping for the last few years, you know that the college agenda is casting a huge shadow over the education policy landscape, with lots of ruminating about preparation, access, success, and completion.

Onto that landscape comes a new report that certificates—not associate degrees, and not bachelor’s degrees—are the fastest-growing type of postsecondary credential in the United States. Not only are they affordable and typically much quicker to get than two- or four-year degrees, they can be a steppingstone to higher degrees and can “often” yield nice financial returns, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, which produced the new study.

My colleague Caralee Adams has the full report and thoughts to share about it over at the College Bound blog.

This report is worth noting, because the policy talk about certificates is expanding. Within the last week alone, certificates and their role in the postsecondary-training world has come up in meetings I’ve had with leaders of the Lumina Foundation, which focuses on higher education issues (and supports coverage of those issues in Education Week), and at the National Governors Association.

In a nutshell, it comes down to this: It’s widely recognized now that everyone needs some kind of training after they graduate from high school. That can include four-year degrees, two-year degrees, and industry certificates. But when you start talking about certificates, things get very mushy very quickly. Which ones, in short, connote sound preparation for a career? As Richard Laine, the new education division director at the NGA, said during a recent meeting I had with him, governors who want to build stronger workforces want to understand which of the many certificates out there are “meaningful.”

This is thorny stuff, though. As soon as you start talking about wanting to build better career and technical education, or help students prepare for careers in high school, as soon as you build pathways to help them move from high school to career-oriented programs, you trigger fears about funneling some students into dead-end tracks, while others glide into college-prep pathways. If you weren’t witness to the backlash created by last year’s Harvard report questioning the “college-for-all” mantra, then I’m here to tell you that it was intense.

And not for misplaced reasons, either, I might add. Folks who care an awful lot about the most disadvantaged kids know all too well that when we stop holding out the four-year degree as the goal for all students, it’s the low-income and minority students who will be pointed toward those other options.

How good those options are for students, and how well they are truly being prepared for a broad and promising array of options, are key issues. What does this complicated world of certificates actually offer students? And how well do those who advise young people understand that landscape?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.