News: Data, Research & Evaluation

Study: More Students Enrolled in Certificate and Associate Programs than Bachelor’s

Friday, January 31, 2020  
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By Janai Raphael, Graduate Assistant for Research & Data Analysis

Earning a short-term credential, such as a certificate or an associate degree, is often overlooked as a valuable postsecondary option for students looking to continue their education. Based on the widely accepted notion that more education yields higher earnings, bachelor’s degrees and other longer-term credentials are commonly marketed as the more favorable option.

In a new report, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) suggests this notion is not always true. In fact, certificates and associate degrees can both be worthwhile pathways to long-term success. The key phrase is “can be.”

A little over 50% of all undergraduate students are enrolled in certificate or associate programs, the report finds. Bachelor’s degree programs enroll about 47% of all undergraduate students, while the remaining 3% of students are taking coursework but are not enrolled in a certificate or degree program. Students enrolled in certificate and associate degree programs are also more racially diverse than those enrolled in four-year programs; students in these shorter-term programs are more likely to be Black, Latinx, older, and/or from low-income backgrounds.

Not only are both public and private colleges enrolling similar shares of students in certificate and associate degree programs compared to bachelor’s degree programs, these institutions are also awarding certificates and associate degrees at rates similar to bachelor’s degrees. In 2016, 1,948,500 certificates and associate degrees were conferred, compared to 1,920,800 bachelor’s degrees.

As previously mentioned, many students are advised and decide to enroll in bachelor’s degree programs over certificate or associate degree programs in hopes of increasing their earning potential. While level of education is important, the CEW report asserts that "what you make depends on what you take." Put another way, the major a student pursues may actually be more important than the time they spend studying it. In some cases, CEW found that workers with certificates or associate degrees actually out-earned bachelor’s degree holders, depending on the field of study. The report notes "workers with certificates in construction trades and other blue-collar fields have median earnings that are as high as those of bachelor’s degree recipients in liberal arts and humanities (between $40,001 and $50,000).”

As NCAN and its members continue to help students select which major, program, and institution will be right for them, it’s important that students are transparently exposed to the wide range of educational opportunities, outcomes, and earnings to make an informed decision. In addition to bachelor’s degree programs, certificate and associate degree programs may be a viable option for students to more quickly earn a valuable credential and increase their earning potential.