What About Certificates? Evidence on the Labor Market Returns to Non-Degree Community College Awards in Two States

By Betsy Prueter

In the last fourteen years, the number of certificates (non-degree awards that require less time to complete than degrees) has increased significantly at community colleges despite little research conducted on their economic benefits. A recent paper from the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education Employment explores the relationship between receiving a certificate and student earnings and employment status after exiting the certificate program. Specifically, the paper looked at popular programs in two states (North Carolina and Virginia) and found that in general certificates not only have positive impacts on earnings but also led to increased probability of employment.

Among the report’s other findings:

  • Nationally, the percentage of short term certificates (requiring less than one year to complete) increased from 18% of total credentials produced by community colleges to 24% from 1997 to 2013.
    • While the increase in long term certificates (requiring one to two years to complete) is not statistically significant nationally or in North Carolina; in Virginia, the percentage increased sharply to 24% since 2011.
  • In both states, earning a short or long term certificate is associated with significant wage increases compared with attending a community college but exiting without a credential.
    • Earning a long term certificate in North Carolina is associated with an $856 increase in quarterly earnings once a student exited, while in Virginia it was associated with a quarterly increase of $346.
    • A short term certificate leads to a quarterly increase in earnings of $293 in North Carolina and a $222 increase in Virginia.
  • Earning a long term certificate is associated with an increased probability of employment of 10 percentage points in North Carolina and 7 percentage points in Virginia.
    • A short term certificate increases probability of employment by 6 points in North Carolina and 3 points in Virginia.
  • In both states, certificates in health related fields are particularly lucrative (especially nursing) in both short and long term certificates. o Graduates with nursing health related certificates also had better than average rates of employment and earnings.
  • Because North Carolina emphasizes vocational certificates it allows certificate earners to enter directly into the labor market leading to better earnings and more stable employment.
    • In Virginia, however, certificates are more general and often require the student to seek out additional training and are earned on the way to an associate’s degree or to fulfill general education requirements.