What if vocational certificates are the future of higher education?

Certificates, credentials issued by institutions for a year of study or a few class to indicate proficiency in a particular subject area, apparently now account for 22 percent of postsecondary credentials awarded. They accounted for only 6 percent of postsecondary awards in 1980.

This shift, however, may just represent a massive increase in the size of America’s for-profit colleges.

The new credentials figures come from a study released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The report indicated that,

In America, the postsecondary certificate has become a cost-ef¬fective tool for increasing postsecondary educational attainment and gainful employment. Certificates are a homegrown American invention and are expanding rapidly in response to a wide range of educational and labor market demands.

Certificates vary widely in their benefits, but have the capacity to raise the country’s global educational standing by both encouraging further education and degree completion as well as by providing gainful employment.

Daniel DeVise over at the Washington Post looked at the report and concluded that “certificates, not degrees, are the future of higher education, a Georgetown researcher contends.”

Really, how many certificates did Georgetown issue last year?

Probably very few. Schools like Georgetown don’t offer many vocational certificates. Schools like the University of Minnesota don’t offer them either. Historically, certificates were mostly issued by community colleges. So are community colleges serving more people? What’s really going on here?

The report is interesting but the data presented actually indicate something a little more complicated than certificates growing and taking over colleges because they’re so great and in such demand.

The Georgetown paper reveals that currently public two-year colleges award 52 percent of certificates. Public two-year colleges, community colleges, have long awarded most of America’s vocational certificates. The increase, therefore, appears to stem not from colleges changing how they do business, but an increase in the number of institutions offering vocational certificates.

What other institutions offer vocational certificates? Well for-profit colleges, which have exploded since 1972 when they first became eligible for federal financial aid. For-profits enrolled about 18,333 students in 1970; in 2009 they enrolled 1.85 million students. Such schools make up 13 percent of all college students. They had 3 percent of them in 2000.

For-profit colleges now award 44 percent of vocational certificates. The real reason “higher education” is producing more certificates, therefore, is probably just a reflection of the growth of for-profit colleges.

That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, but the report makes it sound as if higher education is “transforming” to reflect the reality that certificates are so important to employment in the new economy. That’s not really what’s going on.

Regular colleges (whether community colleges or elite private schools) are offering more or less the same number of certificates they always did. It’s just that, because of the explosion of for-profit colleges there’s actually a huge increase in the number of certificates “higher education” institutions issue. The value of some of these certificates is questionable.

Certificates aren’t the future of college; they’re the future of vocational training. Higher education will continue to offer bachelor’s degrees to those willing and able to pay for them, much as they always have. Perhaps that’s okay, but it’s not really college, it’s “further training,” which has always been what working-class people did in order to get better jobs.

Now, if this growth in certificates revelation is to be believed, the difference is they just have to pay for it themselves.

That’s not necessarily a problem, but let’s be realistic here. A 2011 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, suggested that people go for-profit education institutions are more likely to be unemployed, have higher debt levels, default on their student loans, and ultimately earn less money than those who attended other colleges.

The Georgetown report argues that “the rapid growth of certificates over the past 30 years is a promising signal that students and institutions are recognizing the value of certificates at an increasing rate.”

Maybe. It’s also possible this just represents a growth in one particular business calling itself “higher education.”

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