Policy Blog: The Certificate Solution?
Trends in Postsecondary Certificates
Certificates result from completion of a compressed program of study, usually in a specific occupational field. They are distinct from certifications, which result from adults demonstrating mastery of career skills through an industry-recognized assessment. A recent report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees, surfaced several trends related to certificates:
- On average, certificate holders earn 20% more than workers with only a high school diploma
- Less academically prepared students benefit most from robust certificate options
- Certificates in STEM and applied fields, such as information technology, engineering, and electronics, provide the greatest immediate earnings
- The majority of certificates awarded in 2010 were less than one year in program length. Generally, certificates of less than a year do not produce as large of an earnings boost, but there are exceptions (e.g., police and EMT certification, metalworking, heating and air conditioning)
- Three- to six-month certificate programs in certified nursing assistance and phlebotomy produce little or no income boost over a high school diploma, mostly because the certificates do not articulate to nursing degrees.
How are states incorporating certificates into their postsecondary strategy?
Certificate programs that promote sustained job security and provide an articulated pathway toward an associate or baccalaureate degree can help states achieve their postsecondary and workforce goals. Right now, policymakers are studying which certificate investments will produce a high return on investment and meet workforce needs. The three primary modes of legislative action appear below.
States are studying the impact of certificates in the context of current state postsecondary goals
In the last three legislative sessions, California, Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, and Texas have studied career pathways including certificates or have incorporated certificate attainment into state goals. Minnesota Senate File 184 (2010) required a legislative report, which evaluated the potential impact of an integrated, articulated career pathway. The pathway would provide workers with an immediate earnings boost while creating a means for pursuing higher degrees.
States are incorporating certificate enrollment and completion into data reports and performance systems
Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin have enacted policies that require data collection or performance tracking for certificate attainment. Oregon Senate Bill 1581 (2012) directs institutions to set and achieve certificate completion targets as a requirement of receiving state appropriations.
States are extending financial aid to certificate programs
Arkansas, Florida, New York, Texas, and Wyoming, among other states, have expanded state aid to certificate programs. Florida House Bill 5201 (2012) allows students eligible for the initial Bright Futures Scholarship to use financial aid for an applied technology diploma, technical degree, or career certificate. In general, however, states have not considered how they might extend financial aid to adult learners, who might find certificates programs appealing.
Certificates in policy context: A substantial but incomplete solution
As state legislators explore investments in certificate programs, they should consider three issues:
- Not all certificates produce an income premium: Program length, level of market saturation, and occupational field all play a role. Generally programs between one and two years, in high-demand fields, and in applied fields produce the greatest immediate return.
- Geographic variation in value is important, yet understated: The data suggest that certificate value is related to the composition of local economies, regional labor markets, and the state postsecondary system. While high certificate growth states in the South and West share common demographic and economic characteristics, they have wildly divergent economic values accruing to certificate holders.
- The value of certificates is enhanced by transferability to associate and bachelor’s degree programs: Certificates might produce an immediate earnings boost but the increase dissipates over time and usually disappears after eight to 10 years. Therefore, states should examine how all certificates can be articulated to degrees to sustain lifelong earning potential.