The Corner


Degrees and Credentials

Is a young person better off going for a traditional BA, an associate’s degree, or “just” industry credentials showing his competence in some kind of work? Not so long ago, the question would have been dismissed by most Americans, who’d been taught to think that anything other than a BA was hardly better than a badge of shame.

That has changed a great deal. Now, many students conclude that a two-year associate’s degree from a community college is best, while many others decide that a certificate of industry credentials, which can take anywhere from a day to a year to obtain, is right for them. In today’s Martin Center article, Jenna Robinson and Joe Warta focus on the increasing supply of and demand for the latter.

“Credentials,” they write, “are mostly offered by community colleges as an alternative to more expensive and time-consuming bachelor’s or associate’s degree programs. They are tailored to fit a specific skill, industry, or even company. For example, at Wake Technical Community College, there are many broad industry-recognized certificates in the hospitality industry, while there are specific certification classes for individual companies’ software, including Red Hat and CompTIA.”

The great advantage of these training programs is that they give people lots of flexibility so they can tailor their knowledge and skills to our fast-changing economy. Many who today pursue credentials already have other credentials, or even degrees.

Schools that offer credentials are in a competitive market and need to deliver value. Apparently many are, since students are by and large getting the results they want. Robinson and Warta write, “Student confidence in this growing sector seems warranted. Outcomes measures from NC Tower show that students who graduate with certificates have high rates of employment in the state and competitive starting salaries.”

On average, students with industry credentials land starting jobs with annual pay of around $21,000, but some with high-demand engineering credentials are starting at over $34,000. Not bad for starters.

The authors conclude,

Even with so many hurdles for students and policymakers, growth in credential programs is a welcome change for individuals and the market. They are affordable, flexible complements to the two- and four-year degrees that dominate the postsecondary landscape. As the economy continues to change, credentials promise to be an important part of meeting workforce needs.

I would say that this development is sure to put pressure on many colleges to lower their costs and offer more useful courses. Professors who teach heavily politicized “studies” classes have to worry about getting the boot.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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