Expanding Certificate Programs

For many people, especially working adults and low-income and minority youth, a certificate of occupational competence can be a valuable and manageable path to good jobs.

The United States faces a decline in the educational attainment of the labor force that threatens to reduce economic growth and limit national and personal prosperity. Reversing this decline will require a national commitment, supported by comprehensive actions, to encourage and enable two particular groups, minority and low-income youth and working adults, to obtain college credentials that are valued in the labor market. For many individuals, the most practical route toward this goal will be obtaining not an academic degree but a certificate that signifies completion of a rigorous, occupationally focused program of study.

This shift will pose a big challenge to postsecondary education, but there is good news here. First, it seems feasible to quickly ramp up certificate programs. Some colleges in some states are showing the way, boosting enrollment in these programs and issuing certificates to large numbers of people. Second, there is evidence that completion rates in some of the best certificate programs are significantly higher than in degree-granting programs. Third, there is evidence that certificate programming can be economically efficient for the state and federal governments, just as they are for students. Finally, there are strong indications that minority and low-income youth and working adults can find in certificate programs the success that has been so elusive in degree programs.

Such potential benefits do not imply that these groups should automatically be tracked into certificate programs as a final goal. Rather, good certificate programs can serve as stepping stones to further degreed education programs from which long-term economic and social returns may be even greater (for the relatively few who manage to complete them). But for many people, certificate programs by themselves can be a valuable and manageable path to good jobs.

Challenges in the labor market

During the past several decades, rising educational attainment in a rapidly growing labor force contributed significantly to productivity, economic growth, and national competitiveness in an increasingly global economy. A 2000 Joint Economic Committee report found several estimates of the effect of human capital gains on economic growth in the range of 15 to 25%. That review and other studies also have underscored the indirect contribution of educational advances in fueling innovation and new technology adoption.

From 1960 to 2000, the workforce more than doubled, to about 141 million workers. The number of workers in their prime productive years, ages 25 to 54, increased by more than 130% during this period. This growth was accompanied by huge gains in educational attainment. In 1960, just 41% of the population over the age of 25 had completed high school, but by 2000 this figure had reached roughly 80%. College attainment grew at an even faster pace. In 1960, only 7.7% adults over the age of 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, but by 2000 the figure was 24.4%. Especially from 1970 to 2000, workers entering their prime working years had much higher levels of education than those aging out of the prime age group or leaving the workforce altogether.

But these advantageous trends have fully played out. It is projected that between 2000 and 2040, the workforce will not grow nearly as fast as it did during the previous 40 years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects overall labor force growth of only 29% by 2040 and only 16% among prime-age workers.

Slow growth is only half the story. Given current trends, the nation can expect little gain in the educational attainment of the workforce by 2040, at least as a consequence of young adults moving into and through the labor force. Older workers (ages 35 to 54) are now as well educated as younger workers (ages 25 to 34), especially in the percentage with at least a high-school degree, but also in the percentage with some postsecondary attainment. Thus, there will be no automatic attainment gain over the next several decades as current workers age and older workers leave the labor force. In fact, without some big changes in educational patterns, it is probable that the newer workers entering the workforce will have lower levels of attainment than the older workers leaving. Workforce attainment levels will stagnate or decline, and future economic growth will slow as a consequence.

In the face of these trends, President Obama proposed to Congress in 2009 that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” (Russia and Canada now surpass the United States, although there is debate about the validity and value of the comparisons.) According to evaluations led by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, retaking international leadership would require U.S. college attainment rates to reach 60% in the cohort of adults ages 25 to 40. But in 2008, only 37.8% of this age group had degrees at the associate’s level or higher, and at present rates of growth, this figure would increase to only 41.9% by 2020. Closing the gap will require a 4.2% increase in degree production every year between 2008 and 2020.

The While House subsequently added two complementary goals: adding 5 million community college graduates by 2020, and providing all citizens with a year of credentialed education or training beyond high school.

Meeting these goals will be a huge challenge. Even with the most optimistic assumptions about high-school graduation, college continuation, and degree completion, there simply are not enough traditional students to meet the goals within existing patterns of attainment. A realistic appraisal of demographic trends and historic attainment patterns can only lead to the conclusion that increasing workforce attainment, or even maintaining current levels, will require big changes in postsecondary enrollment and completion among working adults and minority and low-income youth.

Workers of younger ages are more racially and ethnically diverse than adults now in the labor force, with greater representation from groups, including Hispanics and blacks, that historically have not been well served in K-12 or postsecondary education. According to numerous projections, the proportion of the labor force made up by Hispanics and blacks will grow rapidly, reaching 24 and 15%, respectively, by 2050, whereas the share made up by whites will shrink to 53%.

Blacks and Hispanics are now far less likely than white students to complete high school, attend college, or complete a postsecondary credentialing program. According to data compiled by the College Board, enrollment rates for recent black high-school graduates increased from just 40% in 1975 to 56% in 2008, and the rates for Hispanics increased from 53 to 62%. But these gains failed to keep pace with gains among whites, whose direct–from–high-school enrollment rates increased from 49 to 70% during the same period. Nor is the college completion gap between whites and blacks and Hispanics getting any smaller. A study of students beginning their enrollment in 2004 found that 66.9% of white students had obtained a degree or were still enrolled five years later, whereas the rate for Hispanics was 57.9% and for blacks 56.6%.

There is evidence that completion rates in some of the best certificate programs are significantly higher than in degree-granting programs.

Trends among older workers show similar challenges. There are about 62 million adults age 25 or older in the labor force who do not have postsecondary credentials of any kind. More and more of them have been reading the signals of the labor market and have enrolled in college. The percentage of credential-seeking undergraduates in postsecondary institutions who are age 24 and older increased from about 27% in 1970 to about 40% by 2000. But working adults have high levels of attrition from college before completion, as compared with traditional students. An analysis of students of all ages who began their postsecondary education in 2004 revealed that by 2009, 49.4% had completed a credential and an additional 15% were still working on one. The remaining 35.6% had dropped out along the way. However, of those who were between the ages of 24 and 29 when they enrolled, only 34.9% had completed any sort of credential, and 14.2% were still working on one, whereas more than 50% had dropped out. Students who were above the age of 30 when they enrolled had even lower rates of completion.

Benefits of certificate programs

Certificate programs take a variety of forms nationwide. They are offered by two-year community colleges, by four-year colleges, and, increasingly, by for-profit organizations. Programs vary in duration, falling into three general categories, with some requiring less than one academic year of work, some at least one but less than two academic years, and some requiring two to four years of work. The programs collectively awarded approximately 800,000 certificates in 2009, up more than 250% from the roughly 300,000 certificates awarded in 1994. Across all programs, awards are heavily skewed toward health care, which represented 44.1% of all certificates awarded in 2009. According to data compiled from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which surveys all postsecondary institutions participating in federal student financial aid programs, the growth rate for certificate programs has been significantly faster than that for postsecondary degree production, where between 1994 and 2009 the number of associate’s degrees awarded grew 53.2% and bachelor’s degrees grew 38.3%.

Although data are limited and often difficult to compare, there is some evidence that certificate programs have a higher success rate than degree programs in graduating students, and that certificate programs are probably more economically efficient than associate’s degree–oriented programs.

Data on the economic returns to students are clearer, although still incomplete. For example, research drawing on a number of national surveys is generally consistent in reporting that individuals who have one year of study after high school earn 5 to 10% more than individuals who have no postsecondary education or training, and this earnings advantage increases with additional training beyond one year. This research also indicates, however, that postsecondary participation of less than one year seems to produce little earnings return.

Further, research at the state level more consistently finds significant earnings advantage to certificates for programs of one year and more. Most of this research rests on matching student records against wage data available through state-maintained unemployment insurance records. Not all states routinely make these earnings comparisons or, if they do, choose not to make this information publically accessible. However, enough do to conclude that certificates for programs of at least one year of study almost always offer good labor market returns to recipients and that they provide a platform for career entry and advancement in occupations paying family-supporting wages.

A study of educational and employment outcomes for students in Florida also has suggested that certificate programs, in addition to leading generally to good economic outcomes for completers, may have particular advantages for students from low-income families. The study drew from a longitudinal student record system that integrates data from students’ high-school, college, and employment experience. It followed two cohorts of public-school students who entered the ninth grade in 1995 and 1996.

The research suggested that strong earnings effects of degree attainment (associate’s, bachelor’s, and advanced) were largely confined to students who had performed well in high school. They were continuing in postsecondary study a trajectory of success apparent in high school. However, the research found that obtaining a certificate from a two-year college significantly increased the earnings of students who did not necessarily perform well in high school, relative to those who attended college but did not obtain a credential. These students were finding new success in certificate programs, changing the trajectory of their high-school years. Moreover, the study confirmed other research that found strong returns to completion of good certificate programs, even relative to associate’s degree completers.

Boosting certificate programs for working adults and low-income and minority youth will not happen without purposeful action by national, state, and college leaders.

Across all certificate programs, the field of study is an important predictor of earnings outcomes. In some fields, individuals who complete long-term certificates make as much money, on average, as those who complete associate’s degree programs. This seems to be because certificate completers pursue and earn awards in fields with relatively high labor market returns and then take jobs where they can realize those returns. Many individuals who gain associate’s degrees do not go on to higher attainment, and a significant number of them hold majors in areas that offer limited labor market prospects for job seekers with less than a bachelor’s degree.

There also is sound evidence of a significant and immediate labor demand for increased awards for completion of long-term certificate programs. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University forecasts that the nation’s economy will create 47 million jobs between 2008 and 2018. Nearly two-thirds of them will require at least some postsecondary education. Of that component, half of the jobs will be accessible to individuals with an associate’s degree or long-term certificate. In fact, projections by the BLS suggest that jobs requiring only an associate’s degree or a postsecondary vocational award (a certificate) will grow slightly faster than occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree or more.

Keys to program success

Given the accumulating evidence about demand, earnings, and relative efficiency, it seems feasible and desirable to ramp up certificate offerings and aim them directly at low-income and minority youth and working adults who are not having much success in traditional pathways to degrees. These two groups are already finding some success in certificate programs and, with a more intentional approach to the design and expansion of long-term certificate awards, they could find still more success.

Tennessee provides a clear example of what is possible and of what works. Tennessee has a statewide system of 27 postsecondary institutions that offer certificate-level programs serving almost exclusively nontraditional students. The Tennessee Technology Centers began as secondary-level, multidistrict, vocational technical schools in the 1960s under the supervision of the State Board of Education and began to serve adults in the 1970s. In most states, analogous institutions were merged into community- or technical-college systems, but in Tennessee (as in a few other states) they continue to operate as discrete non–degree-granting postsecondary institutions.

The technology centers award diplomas for programs that exceed one year in length, as well as certificates for shorter programs. Diploma programs average about 1,400 hours and some extend to more than 2,000 hours. They are designed to lead immediately to employment in a specific occupation. In 2008–2009, the centers enrolled roughly 12,100 students, and they awarded 4,696 diplomas and 2,066 certificates. Collectively, the centers offer about 60 programs, some just at the shorter-term certificate level but most at the longer-term diploma level. Some of the more popular diploma programs are Practical Nursing, Business Systems Technology, Computer Operations, Electronics Technology, Automotive Service and Repair, CAD Technology, and Industrial Maintenance.

Most students in the centers are low-income, with nearly 70% coming from households with annual income of less than $24,000 and 45% from households with annual income of less than $12,000. Thus, most students enrolling in full-time and part-time programs qualify for federal Pell Grants, and many of them receive support channeled through the state under the federal Workforce Investment Act. The percentage of students who are black or Hispanic is greater than the total percentage of minorities in the state’s population. The average age of the students is 32 years, and all of the centers report a mix of new high-school graduates, young adults getting serious about career development, and older adult workers seeking the postsecondary credentials they decided not to pursue when they were younger.

According to 2007 IPEDS data, 70% of full-time, first-time students in the centers graduated within 150% of the normal time required to complete the program. Every year for the past several years, at least 80% and sometimes as many as 90% of students who completed the program found jobs within 12 months in a field related to their program. The Occupational Education Council accredits the centers, and one of its requirements is that institutions maintain annual job placement rates of at least 75%. Surveys by the centers find that program completers consistently report high earnings, as compared with average wages in their industry or occupation.

A growing consensus in Tennessee holds that the key explanation for the centers’ high completion rates can be found in the program structure. The centers operate on a fixed schedule (usually from 8:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday) that is consistent from term to term, and there is a clearly defined time to degree based on hours of instruction. The full set of competencies for each program is prescribed up front; students enroll in a single block-scheduled program, not individual courses. The programs are advertised, priced, and delivered to students as integral programs of instruction, not as separate courses. Progression though the program is based not on seat time, but on the self-paced mastery of specific occupational competencies.

Clearly, this approach discourages part-time attendance. It asks students to commit to an intensive program of full-time instruction. But it consolidates the classroom time into a fixed period each day, providing a clear and predictable timetable that enables students to work part-time and to meet family responsibilities. Transparency about tuition, duration, success rates, and job placement outcomes (published clearly in college brochures and Web sites) apparently enables students to assess costs and benefits, see the reasons for continued attendance, and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve program goals.

The centers also build necessary remedial education into the programs, enabling students to start right away in the occupational program they came to college to pursue, building their basic math and language skills as they go, and using the program itself as a context for basic skill improvement. Getting immediately into the desired program skills seems to strengthen students’ motivation and encourage persistence and completion. While the students are held to a common and rigorous basic skill and workforce readiness standard, connecting basic skills development to technical skills demonstrates relevancy and seems to promote success.

This program structure differs markedly from programs offered in other states. Most community colleges and many non–degree-granting institutions do not offer certificate programs with such completion-focused structure. Students seeking an occupationally oriented certificate at most community colleges pursue a traditional collegiate pathway to the credential that is similar to degree pathways. Generally, they must complete 10 to 12 separate courses, each typically counting for three credit hours. Courses usually meet for 60 to 90 minutes twice a week for 16 weeks during the semester. Many courses have prerequisites, so taking the right courses in the proper sequence is critical (and some courses are not offered every semester).

Just as in degree programs, many newly enrolled students in many certificate programs are required to take development education courses (over one, two, or even three semesters) to build their math and language skills before they can even enroll in the program-level math and English courses that often represent a gateway into their field of study. These courses are credit-bearing but do not count toward the certificate requirements. Piecing together a coherent academic pathway to a credential from an array of individual courses that sometimes are awkwardly and inconsistently scheduled in small chunks during 16-week semesters is hard for students who are often not well prepared, typically face severe and immediate financial pressures, frequently have family responsibilities, and do not have academic advisers to help guide them through the multiple choices required by complex, conventional academic systems. Most students respond to these scheduling challenges by attending only part-time, trying to squeeze in one or at most two courses each semester and occasionally dropping out for a full semester. The pathway to a certificate, especially one that represents completion of a program of at least one year, is long and choppy; things go wrong and students simply drop out.

Actions needed at all levels

Boosting certificate programs for working adults and low-income and minority youth will not happen without purposeful action by national, state, and college leaders. The trajectory of increase in long-term certificate awards is positive but gradual, and it has slowed during the past several years even as, on a long-term basis, certificate growth has outstripped gains in degree awards.

At the national level, officials in the White House and at the Departments of Education and Labor can play an important policy leadership role by promoting certificate attainment above the threshold of one-year programs as a viable component of national postsecondary attainment planning and as a valuable outcome of postsecondary participation. Important needs include better tools for the Census Bureau for tracking changes in attainment, more rigorous reporting requirements for the IPEDS, more critical research on certificates by the National Center for Education Statistics, and more careful work by the Department of Labor to relate cer-tificate pathways to occupational outcomes.

National and regional accrediting bodies should also step up to greater responsibility in their oversight of long-term certificate programs. That means, among other things, acknowledging the importance of block programs that base progress on demonstrated competency rather than on course-by-course seat time requirements; supporting, not discouraging, the compression of classroom time through improved course design; and promoting the effective use of applied math, English, and general education content.

National employer groups should encourage their affiliates to pay sharper attention to certificates as a measure of postsecondary attainment. Of special importance, these groups need to help employers see the advantages of long-term versus short-term certificates for current and prospective employees. There is inevitable tension between the logical desire of most employers to squeeze postsecondary education and training of current employees into short work-related chunks and their shared interest in developing a more highly skilled workforce with the higher competencies and platform skills typically associated with longer-term credentials. National employer groups can help promote the importance and legitimacy of long-term certificates as a strategy to pull underprepared youth and adults to postsecondary attainment.

At the state level, higher education authorities should ensure that the financial and regulatory framework for public postsecondary education encourages enrollment and success in long-term certificate programs, especially in their community colleges. They should encourage their community colleges to build out certificate programs with labor market payoff. They should also work with statewide and regional employer groups (general business and sector-specific) to promote the advantages to employers and working adults of high-value certificate programs.

State agencies involved in workforce development and higher education have a special responsibility, which few are now meeting, to measure the labor market returns of certificates, as well as of occupationally oriented programs at the associate’s degree level. State agencies should routinely match postsecondary student records against the administrative records of state unemployment insurance programs. Ideally, states would assess earnings outcomes for completers versus noncompleters in every program area and compare earnings of those with postsecondary credentials to a sample of those without such credentials in all occupational categories. Importantly, this information should be made widely available to students, prospective students, and their employers.

In some states, public postsecondary institutions have left the certificate marketplace to the for-profit sector. This is not a sound strategy for the long haul. It works for the for-profits as long as federal tuition subsidies are generously available, but it drives them toward high-margin programs and toward students willing to incur high levels of debt. Some proprietary institutions have better success in getting students to completion than do most community colleges, but many have poor graduation rates.

At the institutional level, most of the hard work in developing the promise of high-value certificate programs needs to be done by staff and faculty who have a shared interest in promoting better success. In a few states, non–degree-granting one- and two-year institutions can be major players in this work, but in most states, community colleges must take the lead.

The first step is to examine the scale and scope of existing certificate programs with a view toward expanding them in high-value occupational fields and boosting their enrollments, especially of working adults and low-income and minority youth. If there is a single state model to hold up for comparison, it may be Arizona, where the community colleges have built an impressive array of certificate programs that have some consistency statewide but also are able to respond to regional labor markets. The state’s community colleges also offer a strong example of aggressive outreach to build the participation of working adults and low-income and minority youth.

But for colleges, the issues are not just scale and scope and expanding access. The Tennessee Technology Center model demonstrates the importance of program structures that promote success and completion. Many community colleges see the completion advantage of certificate programs exclusively in their relatively short length, but that is not an adequate foundation for success for strong certificate programs with high labor market relevance and good earnings returns. Time to credential is important and usually one of the reasons that students enter certificate pathways, because they see them as shorter and less daunting than degree offerings. But good programs are often nearly as long as degree programs, and merely limiting credit or clock hours will not always be feasible and by itself will not necessarily build success.

Strategies for success

There are several interrelated educational strategies and practices frequently associated with high completion rates in both certificate and degree programs. These strategies and practices should not be seen as a menu from which colleges might pick and choose. Rather, they should be viewed as a flexible recipe for building new programs and rebuilding existing ones in ways that directly promote student success and credential completion. These strategies and practices include:

Integrated program design. The full set of competencies for each program should be prescribed up front, and students should enroll in a single coherent program rather than individual unconnected courses. Students would not be required to navigate through complex choices or worry about unnecessary detours. Instructors would share accountability for helping the students successfully complete the whole program.

Compressed classroom instruction. Instruction outside of the classroom, using contemporary technologies, should be used to supplement traditional classroom instruction to compress seat-time requirements and strengthen the curriculum.

Block schedules. Programs would operate on a fixed classroom-meeting schedule, consistent from term to term. The students would know their full schedule before they begin, and they would know when they would be done.

Cohort enrollment. Students would be grouped as cohorts in the same prescribed sequence of classroom and nonclassroom instruction. This would promote the emergence of in-person and online learning communities widely acknowledged as an effective strategy for improving student outcomes.

Embedded remediation. Most remediation would be embedded into the program curriculum, supplemented as necessary through instruction that is parallel and simultaneous to the program, rather than preceding it. Students would develop stronger math and English skills as they build program competencies, using the program as context. There would be clear expectations related to developing competency in basic skills, with rigorous assessment.

Transparency, accountability, and labor market relevance. Programs should be advertised, priced, and delivered as high-value programs tightly connected to regional employers and leading to clearly defined credentials and jobs. Clear and consistent information about tuition, duration, success rates, and job placement outcomes would enable students to assess costs and benefits, see the reasons for continued attendance, and make the sacrifices necessary to achieve program goals. Programs would be held accountable to rigorous and consistent national accreditation standards.

Program-based student support services. Even as these changes in the fundamental structure of certificate programs accelerate persistence to completion, it also should be anticipated that many students will require support services to overcome problems of transportation, child care, and other personal, family, and economic pressures. Ideally, these supports would be embedded into the programs themselves, with faculty helping to identify student needs and supporting resources and using technology and partnerships with employers and community-based organizations to supplement traditional support services.

The building blocks, then, are known, and some successful examples are in place. The challenge is for educational institutions, especially community colleges, to seize the opportunities. If they expand their certificate offerings to all high-demand, good-wage jobs in their regional economies, and if they adopt the strategies and practices associated with high rates of completion, they can help ensure that certificate awards and attainment levels will increase much more rapidly than degrees. If the nation does them right, certificate programs can be a vitally important national strategy in boosting postsecondary attainment and maintaining the advances in labor force skills that have helped drive national economic growth.

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Cite this Article

Bosworth, Brian. “Expanding Certificate Programs.” Issues in Science and Technology 28, no. 1 (Fall 2011).

Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, Fall 2011