Report affirms value of associate degrees, certificates

Media and policymakers still often think “college” equals a four-year degree, but the actual number of students earning college credentials tells a different story.

The combined number of certificates and associate degrees awarded by colleges is similar to the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded — around 2 million per year — with certificates and associate degrees each accounting for about 1 million, according to a new report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW).

The report finds that students with associate degrees and credentials in a specialized field often attain better-paying jobs and careers than students earning bachelor’s degrees.

“While a bachelor’s degree is the gold standard for stable employment and lifetime earnings, it is not the only route to economic opportunity,” the report says.

Fields of study matter

Fields of study matter most when it comes to certificates and associate degrees, says Anthony Carnevale, CEW director and lead author of the study. A worker with an associate degree can earn more than a worker with a bachelor’s degree, and shorter-term credentials like certificates and certifications can outearn associate degrees, he says.

For example, someone who earned an associate degree in engineering can expect a median income of $50,000 to $60,000 a year. Meanwhile, the median income of a person with a bachelor’s degree in education is between $30,000 to $40,000.

Certificate and associate degree programs are linked strongly to careers, the report says. About 94 percent of certificates and 57 percent of associate degrees are awarded in career-oriented fields. Within each award, earnings vary by field of study in a pattern similar to that found among bachelor’s degrees.

Among workers with certificates, those who studied engineering technologies have median earnings between $75,000 and $150,000, easily outpacing those with certificates in cosmetology and education, who have median earnings between $10,000 and $20,000.

The minority gap

Students enrolled in certificate and associate degree programs are disproportionately racial and ethnic minorities, according to CEW. Fifty-six percent of black students enrolled in college and 62 percent of Latino college students are in associate-degree or certificate programs. In contrast, 53 percent of white college students are in bachelor’s degree programs.

In states where blacks and Latinos each comprise a sizable proportion of the state population, they are overrepresented in certificate attainment relative to their population share, the report says. For example, in Mississippi, blacks are 37 percent of the population but earn half of the certificates awarded. In California, Latinos are 36 percent of the population but represent 44 percent of certificates awarded.

Community college pays off

In other findings:

  • About half of students taking undergraduate coursework are enrolled in certificate and associate degree programs, and 47 percent are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs. About 3 percent are taking college courses but are not enrolled in a certificate or degree program.
  • Workers employed in a job related to their certificate program have higher median earnings ($40,000 to $50,000) than those not working in a related job ($20,000 to $30,000).
  • Certificates in engineering technologies lead to high earnings in nearly all 10 states analyzed for the report.
  • In Texas, workers with an associate degree in chemical technology have median earnings of $75,000, compared to $50,600 in median earnings for bachelor’s degree holders in the state.
  • Certificate holders in industrial technology in Ohio earn a median income of $65,000, well above the median income of $45,700 for Ohioans with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Workers with certificates in blue-collar fields, information technology and legal studies have the highest earnings among certificate holders in more than half of the states.
  • Workers with associate degrees in liberal arts and general studies typically earn less than those in career-oriented fields, such as business and health. As a result, the real value of a transfer-oriented associate degree comes with the attainment of a bachelor’s degree.

The report underscores the importance of community colleges. “As viable, affordable, and relatively fast routes to economic opportunity for many students, certificates and associate degrees are too important to ignore,” it says.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.