Financial Benefits of Popular Short-Term Certificates Questioned

Hugely popular short-term certificates—educational credentials designed to be completed within one year, and being pushed by community colleges and other higher-education institutions—provide almost no financial return to students, according to new research.

While earning an associate’s degree or long-term certificate results in a higher likelihood of finding a job, and at a higher salary, short-term certificates generally resulted in neither of those, the research, by the Community College Research Center at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, found.

Even where they did, the average annual increase in salary was about $100 a month. Only where several short-term certificates were collected into a longer program or applied toward an associate’s degree did earnings improve beyond that.

Related: The ‘cash cow’ of U.S. universities: Professional certificates instead of degrees

The number of short term certificates being conferred rose 151 percent between 2000 and 2010, and they now represent about one in four of all the credentials being given out below the level of bachelor’s degrees.

The average annual increase in salary for someone who earned a short-term certificate was about $100 a month.

Certificates of all type are now the second most common postsecondary award in the United States, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, with more than a million a year being granted.

They’re also big money-makers for universities and colleges—a “cash cow,” as one put it”—many experts inside and outside higher education say.

Related: In a tough economy, new focus on job-oriented certificates

Reported in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, the journal of the American Educational Research Association the research used academic, wage, and employment records of students who attended any of 34 community and technical colleges in Washington State over seven years beginning in 2001-2002.

Research in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia has arrived at similar findings.

Related: LinkedIn ranks colleges by whether their graduates get “desirable” jobs

The study was underwritten by the Gates Foundation, which also has supported The Hechinger Report, which produced this story. The Hechinger Report is based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Men who earned a long-term certificate, on the other hand, were 11 percent more likely, and women 9 percent more likely, to have a job.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.