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

By: Di Xu & Madeline Joy Trimble | November 2014

The annual number of certificates (non-degree awards that typically require less time to complete than degrees) awarded by community colleges has increased dramatically since 2000, but relatively little research has been conducted on the economic benefits of certificates in the labor market. Based on detailed student-level information from matched college transcript and employment data in two states, this paper estimates the relationship between earning a certificate and student earnings and employment status after exiting college.

While prior research in this area has explored how returns to certificates vary across broad fields of study, there may still exist substantial variation across programs within broad fields of study. This paper extends prior research by examining the returns to specific programs that are most popular in each state.

The results indicate that certificates have positive impacts on earnings in both states overall, and in cases where there is no impact on earnings, certificates may nonetheless lead to increased probability of employment or to other benefits. In some cases, certificates appear to promote entry into a student’s desired industry of employment, even if the industry switch is not associated with an increase in earnings on average. In addition, the authors find substantial variation in the returns across fields of study and, more importantly, across specific programs within a particular field. These results suggest that important evidence is lost when information about the benefits of certificate programs are simply averaged together.

A version of this paper is published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.

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