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The Certificate Myth

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What if vocational certificates are the future of higher education?

The certificate story is the latest topic in "higher education's future" news. Maybe in the future most people won't study in college for four years at all; they'll just get some quick and inexpensive certificates that indicate their qualifications for jobs. This predication is based on a recent study published indicating a huge growth in certificates issued by higher education institution. This idea deserves a little scrutiny.

Certificates, credentials issued for a year of study or a few class to indicate proficiency in a particular subject area, apparently now account for 22 percent of postsecondary credentials awarded. They accounted for only 6 percent of postsecondary awards in 1980. This shift, however, may just represent a massive increase in the size of America's for-profit colleges. The value of the certificates these institutions issue is questionable.

The new credentials figures come from a study released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The report indicated that:

In America, the postsecondary certificate has become a cost-effective tool for increasing postsecondary educational attainment and gainful employment. Certificates are a homegrown American invention and are expanding rapidly in response to a wide range of educational and labor market demands.

Certificates vary widely in their benefits, but have the capacity to raise the country’s global educational standing by both encouraging further education and degree completion as well as by providing gainful employment.

Catherine Gewertz at Education Week writes that "certificates are hot:"

This report is worth noting, because the policy talk about certificates is expanding. Within the last week alone, certificates and their role in the postsecondary-training world has come up in meetings I've had with leaders of the Lumina Foundation, which focuses on higher education issues... and at the National Governors Association.

Daniel DeVise over at the Washington Post looked at the report and concluded that “certificates, not degrees, are the future of higher education, a Georgetown researcher contends.”

Really, how many certificates did Georgetown issue last year?

Probably very few. Schools like Georgetown don’t offer many vocational certificates. Schools like the University of Minnesota don’t offer them either. Historically, certificates were mostly issued by community colleges. So are community colleges serving more people? What’s really going on here?

The data presented in the report actually indicates something a little more complicated than certificates growing and taking over colleges because they’re so great and in such demand.

Currently public two-year colleges award 52 percent of certificates. These institutions, community colleges, have long awarded most of America’s vocational certificates. The increase, therefore, appears to stem not from colleges changing how they do business, but an increase in the number of institutions offering vocational certificates.

What other institutions offer vocational certificates? For-profit colleges, which have exploded since 1972 when they first became eligible for federal financial aid. For-profits enrolled about 18,333 students in 1970; in 2009 they enrolled 1.85 million students. Such schools make up 13 percent of all college students. They had 5 percent of them in 2001.

For-profit colleges now award 44 percent of vocational certificates. The real reason “higher education” is producing more certificates, therefore, is probably just a reflection of these businesses.

Are these certificates any good? Do they help people get the jobs that are supposed to be so important in this economy? No one really knows. Some of them do, for sure, but a 2011 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, suggested that people who go for-profit education institutions are more likely to be unemployed, have higher debt levels, default on their student loans, and ultimately earn less money than those who attended other colleges. That's where we're getting this upsurge in certificates.

Regular colleges (whether community colleges or elite private schools) are offering more or less the same number of certificates they always did. It's just that, because of the explosion of for-profit colleges there's actually a huge increase in the number of certificates "higher education" institutions issue.

Certificates aren’t the future of college; they’re the future of vocational training. Higher education will continue to offer bachelor’s degrees to those willing and able to pay for them, much as they always have. Perhaps that’s okay, but certificate growth is not really about college; it’s “further training," which has always been what working-class people did in order to get better jobs. So what's the real change here?

The Georgetown report argues that “the rapid growth of certificates over the past 30 years is a promising signal that students and institutions are recognizing the value of certificates at an increasing rate.”

Maybe. It’s also possible this just represents a growth in one particular business calling itself “higher education.”

[Cross-posted at the Washington Monthly]