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Is the Certificate the New College Degree?

A new study finds that certificates are the fastest growing postsecondary credential. And the right ones pay more than a B.A., too.


Going to college is still one of the best ways to set yourself up for success in the workforce, but not every job in the 21st century economy requires a four-year degree. Sometimes a certificate is all you need to get on your desired career path. Indeed, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, certificates are the fastest growing form of postsecondary credential around.

In 1980 only 6 percent of Americans earned a certificate, but that’s skyrocketed up to 22 percent, with more than one million of us earning a certificate every year. What’s the appeal? They're less time consuming—54 percent take under a year to earn—and are therefore less expensive than either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree. That makes them especially appealing to learners with less cash on hand. Two-thirds of certificate earners are under the age of thirty and come from lower income and minority backgrounds.


On average, certificate holders earn about $39,000. That's less than the $54,000 a bachelor’s degree holder earns but it's more than the $29,000 the average high school graduate takes home. And, depending on the certificate you go for, you can actually end up with a higher paying job than someone with more education. A male with a certificate in computer and information service can earn about $72,000 per year—more than 72 percent of his peers with an associate’s degree and more than 54 percent of male bachelor’s degree holders.

Notice we said "male." Thanks to gender inequity, just as a man with a bachelor’s degree can out-earn a woman with a master’s degree, women don’t benefit from certificates as much as the guys do. A woman working in that same field only earns about $57,000. But don't let that deter you, ladies. That’s still more money than 75 percent of women with just an associate's degree and 64 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree make.

So should you go get a certificate to make yourself more employable in a tough job market? If you decide to do so, you won't be alone. One surprising finding is that one-third of certificate holders also have an associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree. Certificates don’t work out for everyone, but maybe instead of plunking down serious cash for four-year or graduate degree if you want to change careers, they might be a smart option to consider.

The other question the growing popularity of certificates raises is whether down the road they could eventually replace college degrees. After all, even EdX, the online learning collaboration between MIT and Harvard, is going to be offering certificates of completion. While those aren't certificates in the sense that this study is talking about, if EdX students take a full sequence of courses in a specific area, the initiative might eventually offer a more formal certificate to indicate mastery of a field. Even if that doesn't happen, given the out-of-control cost of college, students might simply opt for a more efficient way to acquire the skills they need for the workforce.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user rutlo

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