NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Seeking a Shortcut to a Job

July 23, 2013

Faced with ballooning costs at four-year colleges and an uncertain job market, a growing number of students are earning something else: a certificate aimed at landing a job. Increasingly crucial to the community colleges that have long catered to students who pursue two-year degrees or get basic credits before attending four-year schools, certificate programs not only cost less on average than a year at college but they also bring higher salaries than those received by job candidates with high school diplomas, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • Certificate programs are the fastest-growing segment of higher education, drawing younger and older students alike.
  • From 2001 to 2011, the number of certificates of one year or less awarded by public community colleges more than doubled to about 249,000 from about 106,000.
  • Overall, associate degrees at public community colleges increased over the same period, but at a slower rate -- from about 443,000 to about 682,000.

Certificate programs aren't a panacea for the problems playing out in higher education. While the shift has opened up new areas of business for the schools, it brings added risks in the rapidly changing economy.

  • Courses can be put together in months, but they just as quickly become obsolete.
  • Programs that are too short can leave students paying for a dead-end piece of paper.
  • The industry might not need the skill set, and the earning potential may plateau.

The growing interest in certificates follows years of skepticism about noncredit programs, as some observers saw them as gimmicks that had little value beyond the paper they were printed on, while degrees were often regarded as guaranteed pathways to jobs.

The average annual cost of certificate programs is $6,780 at a public community college and $19,635 at a for-profit college. The push toward certificates highlights a growing emphasis on efficiency and completion rates in higher education, an approach that has gained particular traction since President Barack Obama's call for an additional 5 million graduates from community colleges by 2020.

Source: Caroline Porter, "Seeking a Shortcut to a Job," Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2013.


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