||Seeking a Shortcut to a Job
Students Opt for Certificates Over Degrees; Quick and Cheap, but No Sure Thing
Faced with ballooning costs at four-year colleges and an uncertain job market, a growing number of students are earning something else: a certificate aimed at landing a job.
Increasingly crucial to the community colleges that have long catered to students who pursue two-year degrees or get basic credits before attending four-year schools, certificate programs not only cost less on average than a year at college but they also bring higher salaries than those received by job candidates with high-school diplomas. The programs can typically last a few months to two years and range from cosmetology to aircraft mechanics.
"I look at one-year certificates as a gateway to a career," said Ken Ender, president of Harper College, a community college outside Chicago. "They absolutely need to be augmented by more training and more credentials. But it is a gateway that makes sense for lots of people."
Certificate programs are the fastest-growing segment of higher education, drawing younger and older students alike. From 2001 to 2011, the number of certificates of one year or less awarded by public community colleges more than doubled to about 249,000 from about 106,000, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Meanwhile, overall associate degrees at public community colleges increased over the same period, but at a slower rate to about 682,000 from about 443,000.
To be sure, certificate programs aren't a panacea for the problems playing out in higher education. While the shift has opened up new areas of business for the schools, it brings added risks in the rapidly changing economy.
Courses can be put together in months, but they just as quickly can become obsolete. Programs that are too short can leave students paying for a dead-end piece of paper; too specific, and the industry might not need the skill-set; too general, and the earning potential may plateau.
The growing interest in certificates follows years of skepticism about noncredit programs, as some observers saw them as gimmicks that had little value beyond the paper they were printed on, while degrees were often regarded as guaranteed pathways to jobs. Those perceptions were fueled by for-profit colleges, where certificate programs were aggressively pitched as a quick-and-easy way to learn valuable job skills.
"There's no question in my mind that the market is rewarding students who have technical skills that can be used to solve problems," said Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and the president of College Measures, a company focused on U.S. higher education. "But too many of the one-year-or-less programs do not have good payoffs."
The average annual cost of certificate programs is $6,780 at a public community college and $19,635 at a for-profit college, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. The median salary for an aviation certificate holder is nearly $66,000, while the median salary for someone with a food-services certificate is less than $18,000.
Krystyna Sobek, a 42-year-old maintenance worker in downtown Chicago, didn't get the payoff she anticipated after enrolling in a $19,000 cosmetology course at a for-profit institution. After finishing the program in one year, she couldn't find a job that would also offer health care for her family. Now, she works to pay off her loans from the cosmetology certificate at an office building downtown and has abandoned hopes of working in hairdressing for now.
"If I had just had someone to guide me, I probably wouldn't have made those choices," she said. "Now I'm stuck."
Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, an intermediary between industry and education sectors, said certificates play an important role in quickly training the country's work force. But she said the certificates often aren't transparent or consistent in the skills being taught, which can confuse businesses.
"Certificates would have greater value if they were aligned to academic pathways and industry standard credentials," she said.
The push toward certificates highlights a growing emphasis on efficiency and completion rates in higher education, an approach that has gained particular traction since President Barack Obama's call for an additional five million graduates from community colleges by 2020.
At Harper, the school recently adopted a new motto: "Finish." And the school nearly doubled the number of certificates awarded annually to about 2,100 in 2012 from about 1,100 in 2011.
Ken Pechtl, a recent high-school graduate, enrolled in a six-week summer course at Harper to become a certified nursing assistant before heading to the University of Pittsburgh in the fall. He sees the certificate program as a boost to his résumé and a way to earn extra cash at school next year.
"The course is designed so that if you don't like it, you can move on," said the 18-year-old Mundelein, Ill., native. "It is definitely something that I found that I am good at and enjoy doing."
More than 80% of students who earned short-term certificates in 2012 from Harper College are employed, and about 50% are working in their chosen track. Georgetown University's education center reports that only 44% of certificate holders work in their field of training.
"The certificate is a good choice for the low-middle of the high-school graduation class," said Stephen Rose, a Georgetown University research professor who co-wrote a report on certificates last year. "But even if they can get really good at their job, they aren't going to have other skills to move up."
According to Mr. Rose's research, salaries jump about 20% for certificate holders when compared to workers with high-school diplomas only. But that gain is mostly lost when certificate holders choose not to work in their fields of study -- unlike more traditional associate and bachelor's degrees, which typically confer a long-term pay bump regardless of the degree focus.
Also, certificates' training success often comes down to the specific subject. For computer and information services, male certificate holders who work in the field earn more money on average than 72% of men with associate degrees and 54% of men with bachelor's degrees. For women, the breakdown is 75% and 64%, according to the Georgetown report.
After high school, Eric Chumbley, 24, of Lexington, Ky., took a few college classes at Eastern Kentucky University and tried to expand his boat-cleaning company. When both his college and business efforts faltered, he enrolled in a two-month certificate program that cost about $3,500 and trained him to become a lineman for a utility company.
He was hired the day after graduation in 2009 and now makes about $54,000 annually. His company pays for additional and related education, and Mr. Chumbley plans to complete a four-year online bachelor's degree in safety management.
"I believe 100% that I wouldn't be where I am today without the program," he said.
(Source: The Wall Street Journal, 07/16/13)
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