Although there are many voices calling for the creation of more flexible alternatives to the 4-year bachelors paradigm, most of the discussion seems to be prospective, rather than descriptive. A helpful report published by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce last month on the use of certificates does a great deal to fill this gap.
A certificate is a “recognition of completion of a course of study based on a specific field,” which, although granted by public and private schools, tends to apply to the more blue-collar occupations (e.g. air-conditions or auto mechanics). The report begins with the surprising fact that “over 1 in 10 American workers reports a certificate as their highest level of education,” indicating that there is already strong demand for educational alternatives. Furthermore, although academically similar (at least on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy Test) to high school students, certificate holders tend to earn more money (around 20% more, to be exact). As would be expected, those benefiting from credentials tend to be older and in a lower-income bracket than the typical higher education student.
They also helpfully break down the usage and benefits of certificates by gender and race. It appears that, while certificates are often useful tools for male students, female students are often earning worse certificates in less remunerative fields. This significantly lowers their premium. Their use in particular of healthcare certificates singlehandedly makes short-term certificates (requiring less than a year to complete), which would otherwise be just as helpful as the rest, appear a worse investment. As long as I’m pointing out differences like this, I have to mention it was also very interesting that Hispanics earned the greatest premium (41-44%), whereas African-Americans earned the lowest (11-27%).
As we continue to develop strategies for revolutionizing the education sector, it should be worthwhile to, as much as possible, make use of structures already in place. The practice of offering certificates for completing a course of study is one such promising avenue. Combined with new technologies of online and automated teaching, they can provide an extremely low-cost and worthwhile alternative to the increasingly expensive and insular traditional college path.