New Data on Non-Degree Credentials

More than a quarter of Americans hold a non-degree credential, with 21 percent completing a work experience program, new federal data shows. And many of these credential holders have well-paying jobs.

More than one quarter of Americans hold a non-degree credential, such as a certificate or an occupational license or certification, according to new data from the federal government. And 21 percent have a completed a work experience program such as an internship, residency or apprenticeship.

The new report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics is based on responses from 47,744 adults to a 2016 survey. Its goal, the department said, was to learn more about the prevalence of these credentials as well as to gauge perceptions about their value in the job market.

The new numbers arrive amid growing doubts from a broad swath of Americans about the value of a college degree.

Numerous studies show that a bachelor’s degree remains the best ticket to the middle class. Associate degree earners also tend to do better in the job market than people with just a high-school credential. However, racking up even a small amount of debt in college while not earning a degree often leads to loan default and related financial problems.

Amid this backdrop, policymakers on both sides of the aisle increasingly are pushing non-college job training options. For example, the Trump administration is seeking an expansion of apprenticeships, and has doubled federal funding for those programs to $200 million.

Federally registered apprenticeships, however, include college classroom work. And many of the “blue-collar” professions politicians have been trumpeting as they complain about too much of a focus on traditional college -- welding is a commonly cited one -- typically require training at a community college or a vocational or trade school, including for-profits.

The federal survey found that 27 percent of working-age adults have earned a college certificate or a professional certification or license.

Among this group, 8 percent reported holding a certificate, 18 percent hold a license and 6 percent a certification.

Certificate holders were most likely to work as administrative assistants (17 percent) or in healthcare (12), followed by jobs in business management and operations, sales, manufacturing and farming, and grounds services. They are most likely to earn between $20,000 and $50,000 per year (42 percent), with 29 percent earning less than $20,000 and 29 percent earning more than $50,000.

Those findings gel with previous research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which found college certificates to be the fastest-growing credential -- 22 percent of all college credentials issued in 2012, up from 6 percent in 1980.

The center’s report said certificate programs are relatively inexpensive, can typically be completed in a year or less and pay off in the job market for most who earn them. However, women who hold certificates generally cluster in healthcare fields that pay less than IT, manufacturing or other professions where men who hold certificates tend to work.

Certificate holders typically are happy with their credential, according to results from the new federal survey.

Most respondents said their last postsecondary certificate was either very useful (49 percent) or somewhat useful (27 percent) for them in getting a job. An even larger percentage (83 percent) said the certificate program improved their work skills while 58 percent said it was useful in increasing their pay.