Associate’s degrees, certificates may be more valuable than you think, says Georgetown study

Bachelor’s degrees remain “the gold standard for stable employment and lifetime earnings,” but certificate and associate’s degree programs deserve a closer look, according to a new report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Certificate and associate’s degree programs now enroll more students—about 50 percent of postsecondary students taking undergraduate coursework—than bachelor’s degree programs, which account for about 47 percent. 

While saying that the end goal is to create pathways from certificate programs to associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, the CEW notes that education stakeholders need to understand “the educational and economic value of the full range of credentials on the middle-skills pathway”—the space between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree—in order to create policies that benefit the full spectrum of postsecondary students.

Field of study a key factor

In researching the risks, rewards, and characteristics of various education and training programs, the CEW found that the middle-skills pathway is “often overlooked,” given that certificates and associate’s degrees “can be viable routes to economic opportunity.” Because those programs are strongly linked to careers, however, field of study is important, said Anthony P. Carnevale, lead author and CEW director.

“A worker with an associate’s degree can earn more than a worker with a bachelor’s degree, and shorter-term credentials like certificates and certifications can out-earn associate’s degrees,” Carnevale said. The report points out, for instance, that associate’s degree holders who studied engineering have median annual earnings between $50,001 and $60,000, well above bachelor’s degree holders who studied education, who have median annual earnings between $30,001 and $40,000. 

Students of color disproportionately represented

The CEW also found that certificate and associate’s degree programs disproportionately enroll students of color, as well as low-income students and adult learners. Specifically, researchers found that 56 percent of Black and 62 percent of Latine students enrolled in college are concentrated in certificate and associate’s degree programs, while 44 percent of Black and 38 percent of Latine college students are pursuing bachelor’s degrees. Among white college students, 53 percent are in bachelor’s degree programs, while 47 percent are pursuing certificates or associate’s degrees. 

Although Black and Latine students “are earning postsecondary credentials at higher rates today, the fact that they are obtaining lower levels of postsecondary attainment than [white students] means we have a lot of work to do to close equity gaps,” Tanya I. Garcia, co-author of the report, said in a statement

Despite the strong earnings potential associated with certain certificates and associate’s degrees, the overall lifetime earnings of workers with bachelor’s degrees still far outpaces those with certificates. The Associated Press recently called attention to some of the factors pushing students of color and low-income students out of four-year institutions and toward community college, including rising tuition costs and lack of support.

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