Are certificates the credential of the future?

Are Americans overlooking the value of a certificate?

A new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce suggests career-oriented post-secondary certificates could help the U.S. meet educational attainment goals as well as adapt to a changing job market.

Certificates aren't included in many government reports on post-secondary education, according to the report, "Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees." But certificates are the fastest-growing post-secondary award in the U.S., and now rank second only to the bachelor's degree as the most common award in the higher education system, with 1 million certificates awarded in 2010.

If certificates were counted, they could go a long way toward improving U.S. post-secondary attainment rates. According to the study, including only career-oriented certificates with demonstrable value on the labor market would allow the U.S. to jump up five spots in international rankings, from 15th to 10th.

The study authors also suggest certificates could be a key path toward meeting the goal set for the nation by the Lumina Foundation of 60 percent of adults having some post-secondary credential by 2025. Another CEW report suggests 63 percent of jobs will require some form of post-secondary training by 2018.

The many faces of certificates

You may think certificates are all the same -- short-term programs that provide training in a specific, career-oriented niche. But the CEW's report shows that a certificate can actually be a pretty versatile credential.

Certificates range in length from a few weeks to two to four years, although 54 percent of certificates awarded in 2010 were in programs that lasted less than one year.

While a number of certificate programs, such as phlebotomy, can lead directly into a career, the study also showed that 20 percent of certificate holders go on to earn an associate degree and another 13 percent go on to a bachelor's degree, suggesting that certificates can also be a pathway to more education.

"In an economy in which the lockstep march from school to work has been replaced by lifelong learning, certificates provide flexible learning modules that fit wherever necessary in an increasingly nonlinear education and training system," the study authors wrote.

The certificate premium -- and gender gap

Certificates certainly have the potential to increase your income. The median earnings of individuals with certificates were 20 percent higher than those for high school grads. The report also showed that the economic value of a certificate is closely tied to the field it's earned in. Workers with a certificate employed outside their field didn't make much more than high school grads, while certificate holders working in their field of study came close to the median earnings of associate degree holders.

More disturbingly, the study also revealed a big gap in the value of certificates for men and women. While male certificate holders earned 27 percent more than male high school grads, for women that number was only 16 percent. A lot of that discrepancy may have to do, again, with field of study. Most certificate programs (12 of the 14 studied) were highly sex segregated, with more than 75 percent of certificates in a field awarded to one sex or the other. Women tend to concentrate in three certificate fields (health care: 38 percent, business/office work: 27 percent and cosmetology: 20 percent). By contrast, men opt for more diverse and higher-paying fields such as HVAC, drafting, aviation and electronics.

So what are some of the top-paying certificate fields? Take a look at these fields where a certificate can offer some bang for your buck:

  1. Aviation: Taking both men and women into account, aviation was the highest-paid field for certificate holders, with median wages of $65,642 in 2010.
  2. Business/office work: Women with a certificate in this field earned a median wage of $38,204, which was higher than earnings for 41 percent of women with a bachelor's degree.
  3. Computer/information systems: Both men and women saw a certificate premium in this field, although men still earned more. Male certificate holders had a median wage of $72,498, which put them ahead of 54 percent of women with a bachelor's degree. Women had median wages of $56,664, which was better than 64 percent of female bachelor's-degree holders.
  4. Electronics: For men, the median wage in electronics of $64,700 put them ahead of just under half (48 percent) of men with a bachelor's degree.
The value of a certificate isn't limited to the certificate level, either. Data shows that having a certificate can boost the earnings of an associate degree holder by 6 percent and a bachelor's degree holder by 3 percent.

Certificates are flexible programs that offer a relatively quick way to train for a new career or retool your skill set. And if the CEW report is correct, they may just be the newest educational wave for Americans.


"Help Wanted. Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018: Executive Summary," Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Jeff Strohl, June 2010,

"Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees," Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony P. Carnevale, Stephen J. Rose, Andrew R. Hanson, June 5, 2012,

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