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Value of certificates showing mixed results

August 27, 2020

Completing a subbaccalaureate program can translate into higher pay and greater employment outcomes compared to those who have no education beyond a high school diploma, but the median salary of those who completed a certificate versus those who did not was the same ($20,000) among students who were no longer enrolled after three years. The results are detailed in a recent brief from the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education. First-Time Subbaccalaureate Students: An Overview of Their Institutions, Programs, Completion, and Labor Market Outcomes After 3 Years looks at enrollment patterns, 3-year completion rates, and early labor market experiences of students who began in certificate or associate’s degree programs in 2011-12. As such programs are receiving increased interest as a way to train workers displaced by the pandemic, the findings of the brief have greater meaning.

The study found that three years after enrolling, 52 percent of 2011-12 certificate students had earned a credential and an additional 11 percent remained enrolled, while 18 percent of associate’s degree students had earned a credential and an additional 40 percent remained enrolled. And while there was no difference in median annual salary among those who had completed a certificate and those who didn’t, associate’s degree completers did exhibit a higher median annual salary ($22,000) versus associate’s degree noncompleters ($19,000).

The study also revealed a higher rate of completion within the three year period for those who started at private for-profit institutions (58 percent) versus certificate students who started at public 2-year institutions (35 percent). The same pattern held for associate’s degree students with 34 percent completing their degree at private for-profit institutions versus 16 percent who started at public 2-year institutions. The brief notes that completion rates for both certificate and associate’s degree students varied by enrollment intensity, with higher completion rates for those attending full time or had mixed enrollment and lowest for those who always attended part time.

Field of study also seemed to matter with a higher rate of completion among certificate and associate’s degree students in manufacturing, construction, repair and transportation having the highest completion rate (59 percent) followed by health care (58 percent).

Health care was the most common field of study among certificate students overall (43 percent), followed by personal and consumer services (23 percent) and manufacturing, construction, repair, and transportation programs (16 percent).

education, certificates