This may be merely a symptom of the current recession or a long-term trend in higher education, but the country is increasingly focused on vocational education. The specialized certificates that people can earn in relatively short periods of time guarantee that the holders of those certificates can find jobs, right? It’s practical.

Well, at least one hopes. Just because it’s a certificate doesn’t mean it’s good. According to an article by Motoko Rich in the New York Times:

Short vocational programs leading to a certificate are becoming the kudzu of the educational world. There’s a program for virtually any skill, from interior design to paralegal to managing records at a doctor’s office. Instead of investing in a master’s, professionals itching to move up the career ladder can earn certificates in marketing strategies, credit analysis or even journalism.

Are they worth the paper they’re printed on? Not always.

The trouble is that while industry certificates might be “valuable to industry,” it turns out a lot of these people with certificates still can’t find jobs.

While the article points out that for-profits and community colleges often offer more or less the same vocational programs at vastly different prices, technically the tax status of the school where one studies is irrelevant. It’s only the certificate that matters.

We know that certificates are important. But the only ones that have any value are industry-recognized certificates. This was a crucial aspect of the for-profit hearings the Senate held this summer. On June 24 one woman, Yasmine Issa, testified that the trouble with her very expensive program at the for-profit Sanford Brown Institute didn’t have to do specifically with the quality of the program. It wasn’t some degree mill; she worked hard there. The trouble was that her work in ultrasound technology was sort of irrelevant. No hospital or medical center recognized it.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer