This report describes the risks and rewards of certificate and associate degree programs, the diverse student populations they attract, and the emerging efforts to measure their economic value. Its findings illustrate why students need better information when making decisions about their education and how to reach their desired destinations.

In an effort to increase understanding about the value of these middle-skills credentials, the researchers used national data on the prevalence of certificates and associate degrees, the students enrolling in and completing these programs, and their labor-market outcomes. In addition to national data, the researchers accessed state administrative data that was used to closely examine the labor-market outcomes of these programs in 10 states.

As certificate and associate degree programs have become popular routes to employment, a deep understanding of the labor-market value of these credentials akin to what is known about bachelor’s degrees is still missing. Students, employers, and policymakers need to fully understand the relationship between the more than 2,200 programs of study currently offered across the postsecondary landscape and the 840 occupations that characterize our modern economy.

Major Findings & Recommendations

As viable, affordable, and relatively fast routes to economic opportunity for many students, certificates, and associate degrees are too important to ignore. The key findings from the data are as follows:

  1. More students are enrolled in certificate and associate degree programs than in bachelor’s degree programs.
  2. Colleges confer certificates and associate degrees at a level that is on par with bachelor’s degrees.
  3. Certificate and associate degree programs disproportionately enroll racial and ethnic minorities.
  4. In states where Blacks and Latinos respectively make up a sizable proportion of the state population, they are overrepresented in certificate attainment relative to their population shares.
  5. The link between certificate and associate degree programs and careers is strong.
  6. Certificates can pay, but it all depends on the field of study.
  7. Not all associate degrees are the same. The field of study also matters for workers with associate degrees.
  8. Roughly one-third of workers take the middle-skills pathway to jobs.

The researchers recommend that going forward, the focus of educators and policymakers should be on strengthening all pathways to and through college—including certificates, associate degrees, and bachelor’s degrees—and shoring up the connections among and between them. Not all students need to earn a bachelor’s degree to get a good job. But all students should have the opportunity and institutional support to do so if that is what they need to progress in their careers. These college pathways can be routes to the middle class, and students need to know how to navigate them.

There needs to be:

  • Increase transparency about post-college outcomes, including employment and earnings.
  • Strengthen accountability for career-oriented programs.
  • Expand federal postsecondary data-collection efforts to reflect the full range of student experiences.
  • Build student pathways from certificate programs to associate and bachelor’s degree programs.