Each year nearly 60 thousand of Virginia's high school graduates head off to college. Most enter bachelor's programs at four year colleges or associate's degree programs at community college. Another, less well known but also less expensive, option may be a better path for some of these students—a certificate program at a community college or technical college. These programs usual take a year or less of full time study and are attended by students of all ages. The majority are not recent high school graduates, and in fact many of those in certificate programs already have some college education or even a degree before they enroll. Nonetheless, these programs welcome young adults and they may be a perfect fit for CTE students who still have fresh in mind the technical education they received in high school.
What Are Certificate Programs?
Certificate programs are not the same as industry-based certifications such as a Microsoft Office Certification or a Cisco Network Certification, though many programs prepare students for certification. The key difference is that industry certifications are typically earned by passing a test, while certificates can only be earned by completing a number of courses.
Certificates resemble degrees: a wide variety of types and programs exist. Like degrees, certificates are typically classified according to the length of the program, shorter certificate programs can last less than a year, while longer certificate programs take up to four years to complete.
Virginia's Community Colleges offer dozens of certificate programs. Certificate fields range from Accounting to Welding and many areas in between such as Banking, Medical Assisting, and Truck Driving. Many private for-profit colleges also offer a selection of certificate programs.
Not all certificates turn out to be equally valuable. Some programs, mainly those in traditionally male fields like Electronics or Auto Mechanics, bring a significant return on investment. Others, in fields like cosmetology, do not lead to significant wage gains; students are better off studying these subjects while they are still in high school.
The table below shows average earnings for certificate completers who were employed in the field that they studied. The majority of subject areas resulted in earnings higher, even significantly higher, than the median income for all high school graduates ($29,000 in 2008 when data used in this study were collected). For example:
- Men with certificates in electronics earn more than 65 percent of male Associate’s degrees holders and 48 percent of male Bachelor’s degree holders.
- Men with certificates in computer and information services earn more than 65 percent of men with Associate’s degrees and 44 percent of men with Bachelor’s degrees. (p. 20)
Certificate Programs Benefit Those Who Stay in the Field
Only 44 percent of certificate completers end up working in a job related to the job they studied. This is critical because working in a job closely related to your program is the key to significant earnings. For example, Computer and Information Sciences completers who work in the field earn 115% more than those who complete the program but end up working in a different kind of job. On average:
- Certificate completers who work in-field earn 37 percent more than workers with just a high school diploma.
- Certificate completers who work out-of-field earn 1 percent more than workers with just a high school diploma.
|Field of Study||In-field earnings||In-field earnings premium|
|Computer and Information Services||$70,400||115%|
|Transportation and Materials Moving||$44,336||38%|
|Refrigeration, Heating, or Air Conditioning||$56,850||18%|
Source: Certificates (p 23). Based on 2008 data
Women Certificate Completers Earn Less Than Men
Unfortunately, women tend to benefit much less than men from their certificate programs. This is partially because they are more likely to enroll in programs leading to low-wage fields like cosmetology and basic health care. But this is only part of the problem. Women earn less than men regardless of their field of study. Women with a certificate in Business/Office Management or Computer and Information Services, have earnings above the median for all certificate-holding women, but still less than men in those fields.
"Women with certificates make substantially less than men, even when men and women work in the same fields. In the most striking example, men with certificates in cosmetology, one of the lowest paying fields for men, earn more than women with certificates in business and office management, the highest-paying field for women." (p. 25)
This report does not separate out part-time and full-time workers in the analysis of incomes, but it implies that working part time may be one factor holding down women's incomes. And the authors further suggest that a number of women may be pursuing certificates in low income fields precisely because they offer opportunities for part-time work.
Certificates often lead to non-monetary payoffs, such as job freedom, career relevance, and less work stress. A cosmetology certificate, for example, provides personal service skills that may allow women to work in the home or allow for a more flexible appointment-based schedule. Certificates may give women more job continuity and flexibility even though the net pay is not much different than the median earnings of women with just a high school diploma. (p. 26)
|Source: Certificates (p 21). Based on 2008 data|
So what should you tell your students.
- Postsecondary education is valuable. You can boost your lifetime earnings significantly with the right certificate or degree. Most community college certificate programs cost between $1,500 and $3,000, take less than 1 year to complete, and can pay for themselves in a year or two. Certificate programs at technical colleges are usually significantly more expensive. In addition, some credits earned for the certificate can be applied towards an associate's or bachelor's degree. Certificates need not be dead-end qualifications.
- Explore careers carefully and make sure you study for a job that you really want and one that is available. If you work outside your field, you'll probably only earn the wages of workers without a certificate.
- Get started in high school. High school CTE courses allow you to explore careers, so you don't end up studying for a job you don't want. And many CTE courses are dual enrolled with community college courses and can help you cut time off Certificate as well as Associate degree program.