Study questions the value of some short-term certificates

Supporters call them 'building blocks'

Despite their popularity, some short-term certificates offer little financial return for students unless they are closely tied to the labor market and count toward longer degrees, according to a new study from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center and the Career Ladders Project.

The study tracked the labor market outcomes of first-time college students who were enrolled in 34 community and technical colleges in Washington State during the 2001-2002 academic year. Student incomes were tracked for seven years.

Overall, the average increase in salary for those who pursued a short-term certificate was approximately $100 per month. Students with an associate's degree, or those who pursued certificates that required more than one year of study, were more likely to find a job and earn higher wages.

The right choice for some students

Some supporters of certificate programs disagreed with the report's findings. Gena Glickman, president of Manchester Community College in Connecticut, says the report's "conclusion that there’s little labor-market value to these certificates is contradictory to everything we know," adding that her institution's short-term certificate programs have high job-placement rates.

Hyper-stackable emerging careers

Administrators in Washington State, where the study focused, acknowledge that the certificates are not the ideal path for many students. Rather, they are targeted toward those who "don’t have a lot of time to spend in college. They have to get out and get a job and begin supporting their families," explains Jan Yoshiwara, deputy executive director of education at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Yoshiwara says the certificates can be "building blocks" toward additional credentials and work well for students when they closely match industry demand. For instance, Everett Community College in Washington State offers credentials that are in high demand locally—and officials report that 90% of earners from one program get a job within 30 days.

Even so, the paper's authors argue that the economic case for the massive expansion in short-term certificate programs should be reevaluated. "We believe that this dramatic national increase in the number of short-term certificates in the last decade may not have produced a commensurate increase in wages for those earning them," they write.

For schools committed to short-term certificates, the authors recommend tying them to the local labor market and making them "stackable," that is, making sure they count toward longer-term degrees  (Adams, "College Bound," Education Week, 11/6; Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/6; Marcus, Hechinger Report, 11/6).

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