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Certificates Lead to Higher Earnings Than Bachelor Degrees, for Some Fields of Study


June 7, 2012


Certificates Lead to Higher Earnings Than Bachelor Degrees, for Some Fields of Study

Certificates can provide greater earnings than some associate and bachelor degrees, although the return on investment varies by field of study, according to a new report from the prolific researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

In Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees, the CEW researchers present data confirming the tremendous growth over the past three decades in students earning certificates (specifically classroom-based certificates, not industry-approved certifications). In 1984, less than two percent of adults held a certificate as their highest education attainment; by 2009 that percentage was 12 percent. They find that if high-value certificates were counted in government surveys, the United States would move from 15th place to 10th in international rankings of postsecondary completion.

Authors Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose and Andrew R. Hanson also find that certificate holders earn 20 percent more on average than high school graduates. In addition, men with certificates earn 39 percent more than the median male with an associate degree and 24 percent more than the median male who holds a bachelor degree. For women with certificates, the percentages are 34 and 23 percent.

The economic returns of certificates vary based on several factors:

  • Certificates holders in high-wage, high-demand fields such as computer and information science, electronics, and business and office management earn more than many associate and bachelor degree holders.
  • Certificate holders who work in their fields of study earn nearly as much as the median associate degree holder. On the other hand, certificate holders who work out of their fields earn barely more than a high school graduate.
  • A certificate’s wage premium over a high school diploma is almost twice as much for men as it is for women.
  • African-Americans receive the smallest wage premium from certificates, while Latinos get the biggest earnings bump from certificates.  

The report also analyzes certificates by state and by institution type. For instance, for-profit schools award a large share of health care and cosmetology certificates, while public schools award a greater share of skilled trades and business and information technology certificates. In addition, public institutions are more likely to offer stackable credentials toward associate and bachelor degrees. One-third of certificate holders also have at least an associate degree, the study finds; the majority of these received their certificates first.

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