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Payoff Found to Be Slim for Short-Term Certificates From Community Colleges

Certificates that students earn in less than a year at a community college are gaining popularity, but a new study finds they produce limited gains in earnings.

Researchers discovered wide variations in wages, depending on whether students earned a short-term certificate, long-term certificate, or associate degree and what field they studied, according to an analysis of about 24,000 first-time community college students in Washington state from the academic years 2001-02 to 2008-09.

Despite the number of short-term certificates increasing by 151 percent from 2000 to 2010, a paper published today in the journal  Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis found "minimal to no positive effects" for these credentials, which make up 25 percent of sub-baccalaureate studies and are sometimes integrated into high school-based career technical education programs. Students can earn the certificates in fields such as welding, allied health, cosmetology, and mechanics, among other areas.

School counselors can use this information to help students decide on career pathways, said Madeline Trimble, the data analyst at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York and a co-author of the study. "A lot of the time the K-12 world tells people to follow their dreams—and not that they shouldn't follow their dreams and take what they are interested in—but that should be balanced," saysTrimble.

The Washington study, based on college transcripts and unemployment insurance records, found that compared with women who attended college but did not finish a degree, women who completed an associate degree had 6.3 percent higher wage returns and female long-term credential holders (those taking more than a year of study) had a 15 percent edge. Men only earned 2 percent more in wages with an associate degree over males leaving college with some credits. 

Short-term certificates were not associated with wage gains or a greater likelihood of employment in comparison to just earning some community college credits.

Much of the difference was linked to area of study. Women's wages increase by 38 percent with an associate degree in nursing and 29 percent for a long-term certificate in nursing, according to the study. For short-term certificates, the one bright spot was for men who had a 22 percent wage increase after receiving a short-term certificate in protective services.

This sample was limited to individuals who have some record of pre-college and post-college employment.

This research is consistent with other studies in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia that found only small economic returns from short-term programs.  The 2010 report, "Certificates Count," by the nonprofit Complete College America, called the rapid growth of these programs "troubling" and noted that long-term certificates were more valuable because of their rigor.

The Washington study underscores the value of short-term certificates as a stackable credential that can lead to more training and students should think of it as part of a broader educational program, said Kate Blosveren, the associate executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium in Silver Spring, Md. 

"It can be a foundation that gets you in the door and it gives you something you can work towards," says Blosveren of a short-term certificate.  Alternatively, for instance, a welder already on the job can go back for a short-term program to specialize further.

Mina Dadgar, a co-author of the paper and the director of research at Career Ladder Project, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit working with community colleges, high schools, and industries to improve college access and success, said a short-term certificate can be a good stepping stone for some. "Make sure they are designed with intention and they are stackable so credits can be applied to a long-term certificate or an associate degree," she says.

While labor market data is important to consider, students tend to be more engaged if they are in a field where they have an interest, says Catherine Imperatore, a research manager at the Association for Career Technical Education in Alexandria, Va. It can be difficult to project job needs, however, students can start in a broader career cluster of interest and then specialize in a particular occupation, she added.

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