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Certificates vs. Degrees

Although there are many reasons for the appeal of a four-year degree, they take a back seat to the financial payoff. Since that is the case, I think it's time to look more closely at an alternative because of the skyrocketing cost of earning a sheepskin.

I'm referring now to certificate programs, which are the fastest growing segment of higher education ("Seeking a Shortcut to a Job," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 16). From 2001 to 2011, the number of certificates of one year or less awarded by public community colleges more than doubled to roughly 249,000 from about 106,000, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

For students who have neither the interest, aptitude or means for a degree, whether from a four-year or two-year college, certificate programs can be the best choice. They signal to employers that the certificate holder possesses actual competence in the field. Since companies complain that they can't find workers with the needed skills, including those with a bachelor's degree, what better way to match employers with employees than a certificate in the precise field?

Critics will maintain that the skills a certificate represents can rapidly become obsolete. It's a risk, but so is being saddled with student debt after having earned a four-year degree. The average cost of certificate programs is $6,780 at a public community college and $19,635 at a for-profit college, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. These costs are a fraction of what a bachelor's degree costs. Moreover, male certificate holders in computer and information service, for example, command salaries that are 54 percent higher than male holders of bachelor's degrees. Not all certificates trump degrees, but neither do all degrees trump certificates. It depends on the field of study in both cases.

National tests can be developed to give employers greater confidence in the ability of certificate holders. They already exist for those who wish to be CPAs. I don't see why similar tests can't be designed for other fields as well. I think everyone would benefit.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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