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.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence