Home Online Education Access and Affordability The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate Degrees
The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate Degrees

The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate Degrees


When I read that Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce had issued another report about the value of certificates and associate degrees, I assumed that the research related to the database utilized to generate its analysis about the ROI of a college degree, which I critiqued in an initial, and follow-up, post. I was surprised when the paper revealed a different research basis.

Anthony Carnevale, Tanya Garcia, Neil Ridley, and Michael Quinn open their paper noting that “the new rules of the college and career game confirm that education level matters, and that more education is generally better when it comes to earnings potential.” They point out that it is less well-known that program of study and major matter even more to potential earnings than education level and that some certificate and associate degree holders can earn more than those with an associate and bachelor’s degree. This “middle-skills pathway” is growing rapidly but is not well-researched, according to the authors. Microcredentials, licenses, certifications, and non-credit education are also part of this pathway, but without a reliable source of data, they limited their research to certificates and associate degrees. The authors acknowledge that career-specific programs can be a risky investment as they are most useful in specific occupations which may not have local demand after a downturn in the economy or a local industry.

Among the report’s key findings are the following:

  • More students are enrolled in certificates and associate degree programs than in bachelor’s degree programs;
  • Colleges confer certificates and associate degrees at a level that is on par with bachelor’s degrees;
  • Certificates and associate degrees disproportionately enroll racial and ethnic minorities;
  • In states where Blacks and Latinos make up a sizable percentage of the state population, they are overrepresented in certificate attainment relative to their population percentage;
  • The link between certificates and associate degree programs and careers is strong, with 94% of certificate programs and 57% of associate degree programs linked to careers;
  • Certificates can pay, but it all depends on the field of study;
  • Not all associate degrees are the same, with engineering and health among the top earning associate degrees in every state; and
  • Roughly one-third of workers take the middle-skills pathway to jobs.

The authors used the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) data to differentiate undergraduate enrollment between bachelor’s, associate, and certificates. They acknowledge that there are other parts of the pathway excluded from this data set because the data is unreported. They also utilize data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS). Buried in the report is a section that “peels back the layers on the ‘some college’ category.” The authors note that about one-third of students with some college enrolled for a single semester.

Of the students who enrolled for more than one semester, one-third completed less than one year of college. The authors write that “the vast majority of those who enrolled for more than one semester participated for a year or more.” I prefer to use the statistics reported and note that approximately 56% of students reporting “some college” complete less than one year of college. Seven out of 10 students who enrolled for more than one term but did not earn a credential attended two-year institutions or a combination of two- and four-year institutions.

Part 3 of the report, “What you make depends on what you take,” provides data on the labor market outcomes of certificates and associate degrees. At the high earnings end of the range, a graduate with an associate degree in engineering or architecture earns $50-60,000/year versus one with an associate degree in education or music who earns $20-30,000/year. Even more revealing is that workers with certificates in engineering or drafting have median earnings between $75-150,000, more than workers with associate degrees.

The jobs with the highest payoff in the middle-skills credentials market are in STEM and managerial and professional office occupations. Interestingly, the authors write that using national data is not enough, and researchers and policymakers must connect programs with earnings at the community, regional, and state level to unlock the true value. There are 10 states that have collected data at the credential, certificate, and associate level to link the local returns to students and local employer needs: Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. The report has an appendix that reports earnings data for each of these 10 states and, across all 10, nursing is the highest earning associate degree in four of the 10 states and is in the top five for the other six.

The report concludes with several welcome, though unsurprising, recommendations:

  • Increase transparency about post-college outcomes, including employment and earnings. This data needs to be disaggregated by race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and sex among other characteristics;
  • Strengthen accountability for career-oriented programs such that institutions provide transparent cost information for programs and the employment outcomes of the program’s graduates;
  • Expand federal postsecondary data-collection efforts to reflect the full range of student experiences. This would include collecting data on all students, not just those who participate in the federal student aid program; and
  • Build student pathways from certificate programs to associate and bachelor’s degree programs. Only 27% of certificate holders proceed to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years of completing their certificate. Certificate programs need to stack into the relevant associate or bachelor’s degree so that workers needing additional credentials can earn them without losing credit for the learning already completed.

For institutions like APUS that focus on meeting the needs of adult learners, this report is very insightful. I recommend that those responsible for evaluating the need for degrees to meet the demands of employers use this report and its appendixes as a resource for prioritizing the development and offering of new programs. I know that I will.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *