- Colleges awarded roughly the same number of associate degrees and certificates combined (1.95 million) in 2016 as bachelor's degrees (1.92 million), according to a new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
- Though the authors describe the four-year degree as the "gold standard" for stable employment, they found that depending on field of study, workers with an associate degree can earn more than someone with a bachelor's. In some cases, certificate holders can outearn those with a bachelor's.
- The center's analysis highlights the growing focus on alternative credentials, which comes as colleges look for ways to make their programs available to a wider range of prospective students than before.
Growth in certificates and associate degrees outpaced bachelor's degrees during and immediately after the Great Recession, though the trend has equalized in recent years.
The center's report builds on its earlier research highlighting recent growth in the number of jobs requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. Those positions now account for around one quarter of jobs that pay at least $35,000 for younger workers and $45,000 for older workers.
To address this demand, two- and four-year colleges are adding more associate degrees and alternative credentials. Some, like the cloud computing certificates and degrees offered by colleges across the country in partnership with Amazon, are designed to meet the needs of specific employers. Google is offering an IT certificate program at community colleges.
Other institutions and systems, including the University System of Georgia, are augmenting their associate degree programs to give students a wider range of options. Its two-year nexus degrees require students take specialized upper-level courses and a paid internship, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. And some community colleges are embedding industry-recognized credentials into their degrees.
The report also highlights that racial and ethnic minorities enroll in associate and certificate programs disproportionately compared to their white counterparts. About 62% of Latino students and 56% of black students pursued an associate degree or certificate compared to 47% of white students.
Associate degrees and certificates tend to be more "career-oriented" than bachelor's degrees, the report noted. More than half (57%) of associate degrees and nearly all (94%) certificates are tailored to helping graduates find employment in the field.
Liberal arts degrees also have a high return on investment, but not immediately, Georgetown researchers detailed in a report this month. A decade after enrolling in a liberal arts college, graduates have a median return on investment of about $62,000, about 40% lower than all other types of institutions. Forty years after enrolling, however, the median return is $918,000, a few hundred thousand dollars more than that of all other colleges.
Certificates and associate degrees can lead to high pay, the report points out, in some cases more than bachelor's degrees. Graduates with associate degrees in engineering have median annual earnings of about $50,000 to $60,000 a year, compared to education bachelor's degree holders, who earn a median of roughly $30,000 to $40,000, according to the center.
"Field of study matters most when it comes to certificates and associate's degrees," Anthony Carnevale, the report's lead author and the center's director, said in a statement. "A worker with an associate's degree can earn more than a worker with a bachelor's degree, and shorter-term credentials like certificates and certifications can out-earn associate's degrees."