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Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees


Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees

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Certificates are the fastest growing postsecondary credential, and second only to Bachelor’s degrees in the number earned each year. In CERTIFICATES: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees, we provide a comprehensive analysis of the returns to certificates and who earns them.

Key Findings


Certificates are relatively cheap and can be completed quickly.

Public two-year colleges award 52 percent of certificates.

Private for-profit technical, vocational, business, and trade schools award 44 percent.

Private nonprofit schools award 4 percent of certificates.


Certificates have swelled to become the second most common postsecondary award in the United States: Over 1 million are awarded each year. In the context of concerns about rising college costs and student loan debt, certificates, which are cheaper and take less time to complete than college degrees, have become of increasing interest to researchers, institutions, and other stakeholders in higher education.

In Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees, we analyze earnings by field of study, sex, race/ethnicity, and program length. One of the most important factors that affects earnings is whether certificate holders work in the same occupational field they studied.

We also take a close look at the demographic characteristics of certificate holders: sex, race/ethnicity, age, educational attainment, academic preparation/skill, family income, and parents’ education.

Last, we analyze the institutions that most commonly award certificates – such as community colleges and for-profit institutions – and the states where certificates are most prevalent and provide the highest earnings returns.

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