This report explores the value of certificates. It reveals that they are particularly valuable for young workers and those from low-income families, especially if the certificates are in technical fields. Certificates can help older workers who are in mid-career or later in their careers reboot after a job loss or reduction in earnings. The report provides insights into the role of credentials for postsecondary education.

Across the country, individuals are turning to postsecondary certificates as an accessible, low-cost route to economic opportunity. Certificates, which typically recognize completion of a program of study between high school and an associate’s degree, are expanding rapidly, especially at public colleges. This growth has sparked interest from advocates who view certificate programs as a promising way to increase postsecondary access and attainment. But it has also drawn intense scrutiny from policymakers who want to understand the value of certificates for people seeking to enter the labor market. This report utilizes Oregon administrative data to examine the earnings of workers before, during, and after they complete a certificate program.

In recent years, the total number of certificates awarded in Oregon has spiked in line with increased production at community colleges. At the same time, production at private two-year institutions has declined since 2011-12. These trends probably underestimate certificate growth because a significant number of awards are also issued by non-Title IV-eligible workforce programs or private career schools that do not report to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

The decision to earn a certificate has become more challenging as a result of the increasing number and variety of programs. While the returns from certificate programs based on the field of study and gender are well documented, this report shows that the benefits of earning a certificate play out in different ways for workers across their careers.

This 36-page report analyzes data from 1997 to 2018.

Major Findings & Recommendations

  • Since 2000, awards of certificates have grown much faster (70%) than awards of bachelor’s degrees (54%) and at about the same pace of growth as associate’s degrees (74%).
  • Certificate holders without postsecondary degrees earn an average of 20 percent more than workers with no more than a high school diploma.
  • Certificate holders in technical fields, such as computer and information services, earn as much as many degree holders.
  • Older certificate holders experience a sharp decline in earnings followed by a gradual rebound as they return toward, if not always reach, their previous level of employment and earnings.
  • Students from low-income backgrounds boost their pay by earning a certificate.
  • For certificate recipients as for degree holders, the choice of field of study is an important decision that influences future earnings.
  • Men surpass in earnings, but women experience much stronger earnings growth.
  • Certificate holders in business earn the most ($40,000), well above the statewide median earnings ($30,300).
  • Certificate recipients in healthcare services have the lowest median earnings ($28,000), although healthcare draws the largest number of certificate holders (36%).
  • Manufacturing, industrial arts, and construction—a group of programs that prepare students for a range of blue-collar occupations—are the next largest field after healthcare services, with 20 percent of certificate holders.
  • Certificate holders are far more likely to be employed in the fast-growing healthcare services industry than they were before they enrolled in a certificate program.
  • Latino certificate completers experience larger earnings gains than whites. They also earn more than whites, both before enrollment and after they leave their particular program.