Professional certificates from Google and other companies have exploded in popularity in recent years. Credit: Gabrielle CEZARD/SIPA via ASSOCIATED PRESS

Earlier this year, I enrolled in a Google-sponsored online course to earn a “professional certificate” in data analytics. The course was one of a series of new, video-based classes that the company has suggested might someday replace traditional college. 

“College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn’t need a college diploma to have economic security,” wrote Google’s president of global affairs, Kent Walker, in a 2020 blog post announcing the new curriculum. Walker later added, on Twitter, that in its own hiring, Google “will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles.” 

Under the umbrella “Grow with Google,” the company offers three online professional certificate courses in project management and user experience (UX) design, as well as data analytics, IT, and other specialties. All are available through the online learning platform Coursera, and cost $39 or $49 a month. On its website for prospective students, Google describes its courses as an educational shortcut to a lucrative gig and lists the average median salaries that certificate earners might receive: entry-level data analytics jobs pay $92,000; entry-level project managers, $77,000.. 

Unfortunately, my experience earning—and then attempting to peddle—a Google-sponsored certificate was less triumphant. My certificate took me just two and a half weeks to get, mainly because I learned to game the system. (I watched videos at double speed and passed quizzes by trial and error.) And when I presented my shiny new credential to prospective employers in the Washington, D.C., area and scoured job postings in Silicon Valley, my credential was less a foot in the door than a plaintive knock at firmly barred gates. Almost every “entry-level” data analytics job I found required either extensive experience or, alas, a supposedly outmoded college degree. The real lesson of my ersatz professional certificate was to illuminate the pitfalls of the burgeoning certificates industry—a rapidly expanding marketplace defined primarily by a lack of data, regulation, and oversight. 

That’s not to discredit the idea behind short-term credentials like certificates. In theory, they’re great. In our rapidly changing labor market, workers need fast and affordable options to acquire additional skills and retrain without going back to college. But in reality, too many of the short-term programs available today, Google’s included, might not meet that need—largely because neither students nor employers have any way of distinguishing credible programs from scammy dreck. The value of a certificate, even when backed by a behemoth like Google, remains iffy, if not downright suspect.

That lack of accountability is bad for everyone. It’s bad for companies in need of skilled workers, and it’s bad for students hoping to keep pace with technological advancements. If professional certificates are to become a meaningful currency in the educational marketplace and act as a pathway to economic security—which they should—there’s much more work to be done. 

Professional certificates have exploded in popularity in recent years. The nonprofit Credential Engine now counts at least 112,000 certificate programs nationwide, offered by trade schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and companies like Microsoft, IBM, Facebook parent Meta, and, of course, Google. Students hoping to switch careers or boost their earning potential have been driving the trend. Coursera, for instance, reported 8.3 million enrollees worldwide in 79 different professional certificate programs as of March—an increase of 157 percent over the past year. According to a 2023 survey by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, roughly 40 percent of adults who are considering returning to school now say they would pursue a certificate, versus just 27 percent who’d go for a bachelor’s degree. 

Low-income and minority students, who are less likely to have access to traditional higher education, enroll in these programs at disproportionately high rates. Of the roughly 150,000 U.S.-based learners who’ve earned a Google professional certificate, for example, more than half identified as Asian, Black, or Latino, and 38 percent of those who reported earned less than $30,000 a year at the time of their enrollment, according to data provided by Coursera. 

When Google entered the online certification world a few years ago, headlines echoed the tech giant’s own puffed-up promises anticipating the demise of traditional higher education. “Google’s Plan to Disrupt the College Degree Is Absolute Genius,” gushed a headline in Inc. “Is This the End of College as We Know It?” asked The Wall Street Journal. It’s easy to see why. Compared to bachelor’s degrees, professional certificates and other short-term credentials are fast and cheap. Students can continue to work or care for their families, and they don’t have to take on loads of debt. Anyone with access to a computer can usually earn a certificate in a few months for a few hundred bucks. 

Sidebar: “How I Earned (Hacked) A Google Career Certificate”

But is a certificate even worth it? The answer’s unsatisfying: We really don’t know. In most cases, no rules require Google, or any other company or institution, to disclose whether certificate earners subsequently succeed in the workforce, or whether they end up making more than they did prior to completing the course. “We know next to nothing about the composition of students who participate in these programs; the rates at which students complete programs and earn workforce-relevant credentials; and whether … program participation leads to subsequent education and training or improved workforce outcomes,” according to a Brookings Institution report published in May. 

The federal higher education database, the College Scorecard, only tracks courses that receive federal financial aid. For the most part, that’s limited to programs that provide 300 “clock hours” or more of instruction over at least 10 weeks (or 600 hours over 15 weeks, depending on the provider). Many certificate programs, including all of Google’s offerings, don’t meet that threshold. 

Of course, some certificates and short-term credentials do translate to lucrative jobs. In its analysis of the minority of programs for which Scorecard data is available, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce finds that workers with professional certificates in engineering technologies, for example, can expect to earn a median of between $75,001 and $150,000, while certificate holders in occupations like manufacturing and construction can expect to earn between $40,001 and $50,000. (Like any educational certification, including traditional college degrees, students’ chosen field of study broadly dictates the scope of their earning power.) 

But Michael Itzkowitz, the founder and president of the HEA Group, a higher education consultancy, says the lack of good data on which programs produce real results—and which, crucially, do not—makes certificates the “riskiest” educational investment a learner can make. In May, the HEA Group published an analysis of the roughly 5,600 certificate programs for which College Scorecard data is available, and found that nearly half (46 percent) of graduates make less than $30,000 per year four years after earning their credential. “Certificates, when done well, can offer one of the fastest paths to economic mobility,” Itzkowitz says. “But they’re also disproportionately likely to lead to the majority of their students earning a very low salary after they complete.”

We should expect students who earn certificates in, say, cosmetology to earn relatively little—such is the market for hairdressers and manicurists. But the HEA Group’s analysis also found worrisome variation in salary outcomes even among students who earned certificates in nearly identical subject matter. Recipients of certificates in “computer/information technology administration and management” from the for-profit Asher College in Sacramento earned a median income of $49,525 four years later, the report found; those who earned certificates in “computer and information science” from the public South Texas College earned less than half that—a median of $18,250. 

Free market die-hards might argue that these disparities will self-correct as students flock to programs with the best reputations, leaving the poor performers to wither. But making those comparisons is tricky. Is the 10-week, full-time data analytics “boot camp” taught by Fullstack Academy through Virginia Tech for $13,495 markedly better than the nine-week online class on the same subject from Cornell University for $3,750? Is the online certificate course sponsored by IBM better than the one offered by Meta? It’s impossible to decide without knowing how graduates fare in the job market. 

I ended up choosing Google’s data analytics course in part because it was the most popular certificate program in 2022, according to Coursera. As of late July, more than 1.7 million students had enrolled. According to Bronagh Friel, the head of Grow with Google, 75 percent of the company’s certificate graduates “report a positive career impact, such as a new job, higher pay or a promotion, within six months of completion.” Those are great results, but they’re self-reported, and there’s no way to verify them. 

Public and private colleges and universities that confer four-year degrees in a variety of fields are not, of course, uniform in quality either. Graduates with diplomas in business management tend, on average, to have substantially higher salaries than graduates in fine arts. Graduates of Harvard make more money, on average, than graduates of the for-profit DeVry. But if the goal is to provide students with an educational path to a reliable salary, a bachelor’s degree—from anywhere, in any subject matter—remains the better bet. The HEA study found that 80 percent of bachelor’s graduates earn at least $40,000 per year four years after graduation (in contrast to the relatively poor performance of certificate holders noted above). In some STEM fields, like computer science, bachelor’s degree graduates earn a median of $104,799.

Part of the reason might be the substantive advantages conferred by a four-year educational experience, says Sean Gallagher, the founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. An employer hiring a college graduate with a degree in computer science is relatively confident that the candidate can perform basic data analytics tasks. But what a company really values, Gallagher says, is that the candidate, by making it to graduation, is likely to have “the soft skills, the experiences, the perseverance, and the ability to attain a goal.” An asynchronous online course, or even a “very deep, well-designed, very expensive, few months’ training experience,” Gallagher adds, is far less likely to convey those types of skills.  

This preference for college degrees extends to the tech world, too, despite Silicon Valley’s love affair with college dropouts like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, and commitments from companies like IBM to dramatically reduce the job postings that require a four-year degree. A 2022 report from the labor market research firm Lightcast found that tech companies still disproportionately require college degrees. At Oracle, more than 90 percent of job postings required a four-year degree or above, according to Lightcast. At Apple, it was 72 percent. At Google, 77 percent. 

This trend certainly held true in my admittedly superficial job hunt this summer. Armed with my new Google professional certificate, I surveyed for entry-level data analyst jobs in both D.C. and Silicon Valley, and found that almost every job required either a four-year degree, significant prior experience, or a nuanced set of skills that would be impossible to obtain through short-term certification programs. A June posting for “Big Data Software Engineer” at IBM, for example, did not require a college degree, but it did ask that applicants have Top Secret security clearance; could demonstrate “hands-on experience configuring and operating container-based systems such as Kubernetes, Docker and/or OpenShift”; and be able to program in Python and Java. When I asked Victoria Suarez, the manager of talent strategy and operations at Alpha Omega Integration, an IT firm based in Vienna, Virginia, if she thought my Google certificate could get me in the door, she hesitated. “Oftentimes, you can just sit there, push play on the video, and get a certificate,” she said. “We all kind of know that too.”

At best, my certificate was a signal to potential employers of my interest in the field. “It could demonstrate to an employer that, hey, this person would be worth training because they’re already investing in themselves to take the certificate and to acquaint themselves with the field,” says Matt Deneroff, the D.C. branch director for the global professional placement firm Robert Half.

My job search at Google was perhaps the most deflating. Despite Google’s promise to treat its own career certificates as “equivalent of a four-year degree,” Google’s hiring platform, which allows applicants to sort job openings by the degree required, does not list “certificate” among the filter options. In a forthcoming book, the author and higher education expert Ben Wildavsky quotes a Google executive admitting that the company-sponsored certificates “aren’t intended to prepare people to work at Google itself.” Google employees, the executive explained, “need deeper learning abilities than short-term programs typically provide.” 

The idea, trumpeted by Google and echoed by overwrought pundits, that professional certificates ought to replace traditional degrees is maddening to many champions of professional certificates. Professional certificates and college degrees are not the same, and they’re not supposed to be the same—and that’s a good thing. Professional certificates are narrowly focused courses designed to teach students a specific set of measurable skills, like how to clean up data in an Excel worksheet. A four-year bachelor’s degree in, say, computer science, is designed to confer a much broader, historical, and even philosophical understanding of information technology, along with higher-order skills like problem-solving, analysis, critical thinking, and research. 

Claiming the equivalence of these credentials is misleading, and possibly even damaging. Low-income and minority students, for instance, might get “tracked” into lesser certificate programs in lieu of college, or they might themselves opt out of college under misguided beliefs about a certificate’s value compared to traditional degrees. The right way to think about degrees and credentials, experts like Wildavsky argue, is a “both/and” approach. “We should not think of [them] as completely disconnected separate pathways,” he says, but as complementary mechanisms for producing students with both a broad education and targeted skills.

Improving the certificate marketplace is a prerequisite step toward achieving that vision. First, Congress can help buttress credible certificate programs by allowing students to access Pell Grants to pay for them. In the Senate, Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine and Indiana Republican Mike Braun have cosponsored legislation to allow federal funding for “high quality” programs resulting in “industry-recognized” credentials; in the House, North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx and Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott have introduced similar plans. Legislation that sets rigorous quality metrics for Pell eligibility and requires comprehensive data reporting could help raise the bar for providers, standardize offerings, and, importantly, provide students with outcomes data to inform their choices.

Second, states could do much more to steer students toward high-quality short-term training programs. Virginia’s “Fast Forward” initiative, for example, funds state-approved programs in high-demand fields, like IT or commercial trucking, where the state has identified worker shortages. Under a unique pay-for-success model, the commonwealth pays two-thirds of a student’s tuition only if they graduate and earn an industry-recognized credential within six months of program completion. According to the Brookings Institution, 95 percent of Fast Forward students complete their programs, and 70 percent earn an industry credential within six months.

Third, employers and providers can help legitimize professional certificates by building certification programs designed to educate students in specific, measurable skills that businesses want—and then ensuring that companies hire those graduates. They can also partner with traditional institutions of higher education to lend pedagogical heft to coursework and underscore a certificate holder’s credibility. 

To its credit, Google is working on both of these fronts. The company is currently building “partnerships” with hundreds of community colleges offering access to Google certificates, and late last year, it announced that it would fund up to 10,000 certificates for students of the University of Texas system, its largest collaboration to date. Google has also assembled a consortium of more than 150 employers, including heavyweights like American Express, Walmart, and T-Mobile, that “recognize the certificates in their hiring processes and are eager to hire talent in these fields,” according to Google’s Friel. (The company does not have data on the number of hires that occur through this consortium.) 

In a similar vein, the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies now guarantees job interviews with a half-dozen employers to students pursuing certificates in fields that are in demand, including cloud computing, cybersecurity, IT, and project management.

Neither students nor employers have any way of distinguishing credible programs from scammy dreck. The value of a certificate, even when backed by a behemoth like Google, remains iffy.

Ross McPherson, a student who lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, enrolled in UVA’s certificate program in project management to switch careers after years of working first on commercial diesel engines and then in operations for US Foods. “I needed to have some kind of competitive advantage to be able [to make] a living with my brain instead of my hands,” he says. He had already earned a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the University of Northwestern Ohio, but he credits the certificate program for giving him a boost. Thanks to UVA’s “guaranteed-interview program,” he got an interview with Definitive Logic, a UVA partner employer, in October and was offered a job in November. “It was probably the fastest process I’ve ever been a part of,” he says. 

McPherson is, by all counts, a certificate success story, but his trajectory was both less revolutionary than the one initially spun up by Google and more promising. If the rapidly growing professional certificate industry succeeds, it will not be because it disrupted traditional institutions of higher education, but because it worked with them to build the pathways students and businesses both need. 

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Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection.