This brief analyzes the current findings of Non-degree credentials (NDC) and explores possible improvements that could be made to define and differentiate quality NDCs from low-success NDCs.

State leaders have recognized the critical importance of postsecondary attainment in meeting economic and equity goals. States are also recognizing that they will be unable to achieve these goals without focusing on student populations that higher education and other training strategies have traditionally underserved. Non-degree credentials (NDCs), such as certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeship certificates, and occupational licenses, are a vital component of state credential attainment goals. These credentials help workers obtain better jobs and serve to reconnect them to further postsecondary education and training opportunities. According to the authors, if America wants to build an inclusive economy where all workers and businesses have the skills they need to stay competitive in a rapidly changing global marketplace, everyone must work together to expand access to degrees and credentials of value.

While non-degree credentials generally do not have the same payoff as more traditional bachelor’s degrees, they do represent a crucial opportunity for millions of U.S. workers to increase their earnings and economic opportunities. The authors emphasize that it is essential that states have criteria to assess the quality of NDCs to make sensible budget and policy decisions, advance equity, and put students on a path to success. The authors of this brief specifically looked at how states are using employment, earnings, and competencies to set quality standards for credentials, as they believe that these criteria likely most accurately reflect what job seekers and businesses are seeking from NDCs and programs. A consistent nationwide definition would make it easier for workers and job seekers to find and sustain employment by ensuring that credentials of value in one state are also recognized in other states.

In developing the quality NDC definition, the authors of this brief consulted with six states who had undertaken significant policy efforts around defining or supporting quality standards for non-degree programs. Those states are Alabama, Iowa, New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington.

This 32-page brief analyzes data from 2012 to 2019.

Major Findings & Recommendations


  • More than 80 percent of all jobs in today’s economy require some form of education or training beyond high school, and virtually all new jobs created since 2008 have gone to workers with at least some postsecondary education.
  • Nationally, fewer than half of Americans have a postsecondary degree or credential. In some states, fewer than 40 percent of working-age adults have any form of postsecondary attainment.
  • The percentage of individuals reporting a postsecondary certificate as their highest educational attainment increased from less than 2 percent in 1984 to nearly 12 percent in 2009.
  • On average, postsecondary certificate holders earn 30 percent more than individuals with a high school diploma alone, and the wage premium for short term programs in certain fields is often comparable to or higher than associate’s degrees and even some bachelor’s degrees.

The report recommends that if a state establishes standards for the earnings level of quality credentials, it should consider the following factors, and in some cases, grant adjustments to the performance standards for individual credentials:

  • Return on investment of money and time
  • Appropriate earnings for the field of study
  • Prior earnings of students
  • Student characteristics
  • Regional wage differences
  • Regional access to education/training for the field of study
  • Stackability with higher-paying credentials

The underlying criteria for a quality NDC include the following five general principles:

  1. Student-focused: Design the education around employers’ needs.
  2. Support equitable credential attainment: Assist underserved populations to access education.
  3. Credentials should be valid, reliable, and transparent: Provide clarity for the credentials.
  4. Provide for flexibility in operationalizing the definition, while safeguarding quality: Use discretion when making decisions around NDCs.
  5. Public process: Gather input from key stakeholders.