College or short-term credential? First, check your assumptions.

Short-term credentials are getting a lot of attention, from Congress to national TV. And there’s more than an undertone of skepticism about the value of a full degree.

“Is college even worth it?” Stephanie Ruhle, a senior correspondent for NBC, recently asked Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, one of the largest customer management platforms in the world.  “You don’t need to go to college,” he answered. “You just need to get the skills. You can do it all online.”

Of course, Benioff is not a disinterested observer, with his company offering a host of technology certifications through its Trailhead online training platform. But his is a sentiment being echoed by wonkier, neutral parties too. As a recent Politico article put it, short credentials are “often all you need.”

Given the complex and ever-changing landscape of post-high school education, it’s no surprise that many of us—including journalists and tech billionaires—reduce things to a binary choice: either a degree or a short-term credential. But this rush to a simple bottom line reveals at least three flawed assumptions about credentials.

  • First is that credentialing is a “one and done” choice.
  • Second is the implication that people are all in the same position to choose between these two options.
  • And third, this binary view misinterprets the relationship between years of education and field of study.

If we want to better understand credentials, and to give advice about which ones to pursue, we need to move beyond either-or thinking about BAs and short-term credentials.

Credentialing isn’t a one and done choice: Many people weave in and out of education over the course of their adult lives. They may start with a short-term credential and eventually go on to earn a degree. Or they may get a degree before starting their career, and then pursue another shorter-term credential down the road as they respond to shifting skill requirements in their industries or the broader labor market.

It’s the case too that many people move in and out of education without completing any credential at all. By the six-year mark, a little over 70 percent of those enrolled full-time will complete a bachelor’s, and only 45 percent will earn an associate degree—and the numbers are worse for part-time students. Students in certificate programs do somewhat better, with completion rates of 50 to 60 percent, but none of these completion rates are the sign of a well-functioning system.

The result is 36 million adults who have some college credit but no credential. These adults often return to two-year institutions to complete the education they began many years earlier. We need to do more to create pathways into and through the kinds of employment-aligned programs these adults are looking for, regardless of whether those are degree programs or shorter-term options. Economic mobility, not credential type, should be our metric.

That leads to the second faulty assumption: That our identity and life circumstances have no bearing on what credentials we choose. There are notable demographic differences in who pursues a bachelor’s versus an associate degree or short-term credential. Overall, Black, Hispanic, Latino, low-income, older students, and students with weaker previous academic achievement are more likely to be enrolled in certificate or associate degree programs than in bachelor’s degree programs.  

Take age: while roughly three-fourths of young adults will pursue a degree or short-term credential in the years after high school, one-quarter wait until later in life. Not going right away doesn’t mean they never go, but it does mean that when they do, they are more likely to pursue a short-term credential than a bachelor’s degree. Six in 10 students in certificate programs are over 25. Certificate holders are also more likely to be female, even though the earnings benefit of certificates for women is lower than the benefit for men. In other words, short-term credentials are often the ones chosen by the people who have been poorly served by our current system.

It is not just that student demographics differ by credential. There are also differences in the kinds of institutions that students seeking certificates attend. Most students pursuing bachelor’s or associate degrees attend public two-year colleges, while most certificate-seeking students enroll in private for-profit institutions. Again, these differences show up in the ultimate return on students’ investments: Credentials of all types earned at for-profit institutions tend to lead to lower earnings than do similar credentials from public institutions.

Finally, no one should think that the credential alone is all that matters. When it comes to labor market outcomes, in general more education is better. Studies show that adults with certificates earn about 10 percent more, on average, than those with only a high school diploma.

However, what field or subject you study can matter more than how many years you stay in education. This is as true of degrees as it is certificates. Common certificate fields, such as cosmetology and culinary services, do not generally pay off; but certificates earned in law enforcement or in engineering, mechanical, or technical areas generate higher earnings relative to high school diplomas. Half of adults with a short-term certificate who are employed earn $30,000 or less per year, but those with STEM certificates earn more, on average, than associate degree holders who majored in education.

Building a system that helps all types of students make well-informed choices about credentials is no simple feat. Instead of wondering “is college even worth it?” we need to ask ourselves how we build a system that helps more would-be students make sense of the options available to them.

The landscape of post-high school education is complex, and navigating it will never be a binary process.

Chauncy Lennon, is vice president for learning and work at Lumina Foundation, whose mission is to make learning opportunities beyond high school available to all Americans. He leads Lumina’s community college strategy to equitably expand access to high-quality short-term credentials and associate degrees.

Editor’s note: Lumina Foundation is a financial supporter of Open Campus. Read more about our policy on transparency and editorial independence here.

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