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Post-Secondary Certificates: Popular Alternative to Degrees

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College isn’t right for everyone, but high school graduates often earn far less than people who have degrees. A recent study has found that certificates, earned for completing a training program for specific occupations, may be a good path to higher-paying jobs.

What are Certificates?

Certificates are still relatively new, yet they have become the second most common post-high school credential in the United States, according to a new report issued by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce titled Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment.

Certificate programs are generally offered through community colleges, technical or vocational schools, for-profit colleges or career schools, some non-profit professional organizations and even at some four-year universities. Some certificates can be earned online.

Types of Certificate Programs

Somewhat similar to a two-year associate degree but often earned in less time, a certificate recognizes that a student has completed a course of study based on a specific field or skill such as auto mechanics, drafting or even cosmetology. Common fields for which certificates are offered include:

  • Healthcare
  • Business
  • Information technology
  • Design
  • Hospitality
  • Skilled trades

First Earn a Certificate, then Earn a Degree

The Center on Education and the Workforce reports that certificates often lead to college degrees—20% of certificate holders eventually earn associate degrees and another 13% go on to earn a Bachelor’s degree. Certificates are “an element that deserves more focus and attention than it’s gotten,” Jamie Merisotis, president of the non-profit Lumina Foundation, which is seeking to increase the number of Americans who complete college degrees or other post-high school credentials, told USA Today.

As many as one-third of certificate holders also have an associate, bachelor’s or even graduate degree, reports Inside Higher Ed. Many employees are earning certificates to improve their current skills or change professions due to the current job market. In some career fields, often information technology, certificates can help people earn more than both two- and four-year degrees. State Impact explains that science, technology and math focused certificates tend to increase earning power the most.

Sex, Race and Ethnicity

The media points out that research shows earning potential is generally lower among women and minorities, but choice of certificate also plays a big role. USA Today summarized the report’s findings: male certificate holders earn more than 40% of men with associate’s degrees and 24% of men with bachelor’s degrees. Female certificate holders earn more than 34% of women with associate’s degrees and 24% of women with bachelor’s degrees. Certificates seem to offer better earning potential for Hispanics than blacks.

Certificates for Jobs that Pay the Most

It’s important to keep in mind that just as your choice of college major can greatly affect earning potential—people with, say, archeology degrees aren’t exactly in high demand—your certification type can greatly affect its value.

The report found that the highest earners are those working in their field and in high-demand occupations, such as computer/information services. As The Washington Post’s Daniel de Vise puts it—it’s more important what you study than how long you study.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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