College & Workforce Readiness

Study: Payoffs Are Small for Short-Term Career Certificates

By Caralee J. Adams — November 12, 2014 4 min read

Career-related certificates that students earn in less than a year at a community college are gaining popularity, but a new study finds they produce limited earnings gains.

Researchers discovered wide variations in wages, depending on whether students earned a short-term certificate, a long-term certificate, or an associate degree and what field they studied, according to the analysis, which looked at about 24,000 first-time community college students in Washington state from the 2001-02 to 2008-09 academic years.

Despite an increase of 151 percent in the number of short-term certificates from 2000 to 2010, the paper published last week in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found “minimal to no positive effects” for those credentials, which make up 24 percent of sub-baccalaureate studies and are sometimes integrated into high school-based career technical education programs. Students can earn short-term certificates in allied health, nursing, cosmetology, mechanics, welding, transportation, and other fields of study.

With more than one-third of students enrolled in college now attending two-year institutions, school counselors can use this information to help students decide on career pathways, said Madeline J. Trimble, the data analyst at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York and a co-author of the study.

“A lot of the time the K-12 world tells people to follow their dreams—and not that they shouldn’t follow their dreams and take what they are interested in—but that should be balanced,” Ms. Trimble said. “There are some very interesting programs that may not leave students in a position to earn a living wage after they graduate, and students should be aware of that.”

Wage Gains Quantified

The study in Washington state, based on college transcripts and unemployment-insurance records, found that compared with women who attended college but did not finish a degree, women who completed an associate degree had 6.3 percent higher wage returns, and that female long-term credential-holders (those taking more than a year of study) had a 15 percent edge. Men earned only 2 percent more in wages with an associate degree over men leaving college with some credits.

Short-term certificates were not associated with wage gains or a greater likelihood of employment in comparison to just earning some community college credits. Where there are positive returns for short-term certificate holders, studies show the average increase in earnings is not much more than $300 per quarter, according to Ms. Trimble.

Much of the difference was linked to area of study. Students with associate degrees tend to focus on liberal arts, which may not translate into lucrative income by itself, but many such students aim to transfer to a four-year college when they’re done. Also, long-term certificates often are in high-return fields such as health care that drive up the average, the authors note.

Women’s wages increased by 38 percent with an associate degree in nursing and 29 percent for a long-term certificate in nursing, according to the study.

For short-term certificates, the one bright spot was for men who had a 22 percent wage increase after receiving a short-term certificate in protective services.

The new research is consistent with other studies in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia that found only small economic returns from short-term programs. The 2010 report from Complete College America, a national nonprofit based in Indianapolis, called the rapid growth of those programs “troubling” and noted that long-term certificates were more valuable because of their greater academic rigor and their range of job-related skills.

Getting in the Door

The Washington state study underscores the value of short-term certificates as a “stackable” credential that can lead to more training, and students should think of it as part of a broader educational program, said Kate R. Blosveran, the associate executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, in Silver Spring, Md.

“It can be a foundation that gets you in the door, and it gives you something you can work towards,” Ms. Blosveran said of a short-term certificate. Alternatively, for instance, a welder already on the job can go back for a short-term program to specialize further.

Ms. Blosveran points out that this recent research does not compare the wage return to those with only a high school diploma, which could result in greater value for the certificate programs over no postsecondary education.

There can be benefits to short-term credentials for some students in some fields, said Mina Dadgar, a co-author of the paper and the research director at the Career Ladder Project, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that works with community colleges, high schools, and industries.

“For many who work full time, a short-term certificate can be a good steppingstone,” Ms. Dadgar said. “Make sure they are designed with intention and they are stackable, so credits can be applied to a long-term certificate or an associate degree.”

Kent A. Phillippe, the associate vice president of research and student services for the American Association of Community Colleges, in Washington, said the new study aligns with research showing the value of associate degrees and long-term certificates and variation by field.

“A lot of our colleges are looking at short-term certificates and saying, ‘This is not necessarily enough in and of themselves,’ ” Mr. Phillippe said. “To be of real value to the student, they need to put some of these together to continue their education toward a longer-term certificate or associate degree.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Few Payoffs in Short-Term Career Certificates

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