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Nondegree credentials have been growing rapidly for decades. During the COVID-19 economic crisis, interest in nondegree credentials and skills training options was especially high. Questions about their quality and value, however, remain.
Leveraging our 2020 Strada-Gallup Education Survey, a nationally representative sample of nearly 14,000 adults, we examine the prevalence, quality, and value of nondegree credentials by length of program, field of study, provider, gender, race/ethnicity, parents’ education, and generation. We find that nondegree credentials yield positive returns, especially when combined with associate and bachelor’s degrees.
College graduates who combine their degree with a nondegree credential have substantially higher ratings of their education than those without nondegree credentials. Seventy percent of those who had both an associate degree and a nondegree credential said their education made them an attractive job candidate, compared to 43 percent of associate degree holders without a nondegree credential.
The outcomes of nondegree credentials earned in isolation are comparable to associate degree programs. Sixty-five percent of those who complete nondegree programs said their education was worth the cost, and 49 percent said it helped them achieve their goals, compared to 59 percent and 43 percent, respectively, of associate degree holders.
Longer certificate programs do not necessarily lead to better outcomes than shorter programs. Eight-five percent of those who completed a certificate program that took between a week and a month to complete said it was worth the cost, compared to 59 percent of those who completed a program that took between six months and a year to complete.
Nondegree credentials issued by community colleges received the highest ratings in terms of quality and value. Seventy-eight percent of those with a nondegree credential from a community college said it was worth the cost, compared to 54 percent of those with a nondegree credential from an individual business or company.
Black Americans rated the quality and value of nondegree credentials the highest among racial groups, while white Americans rated them the lowest. For example, 71 percent of Black Americans with a nondegree credential said their education helped them achieve their goals, compared to only 46 percent of white Americans.
The market for nondegree credentials is massive. Nondegree attainment has historically been underestimated due, in part, to measurement challenges. The nondegree category includes a diverse range of learning experiences, such as certificate programs at community colleges, apprenticeships, vocational training, industry-based certifications and occupational licenses, and more. For this analysis, we include two distinct categories:
In the United States, nearly as many Americans have completed a nondegree education or training program as degree programs. Forty percent of working-age adults have completed a nondegree program or earned a nondegree credential, compared to 46 percent who have completed a college degree. Additionally, twenty percent of adults report a nondegree credential or program as their highest level of education, compared to 10 percent who report an associate degree as their highest level.
Multiple credential holding is widespread. Nondegree programs and credentials are most often used not in isolation but rather to complement or supplement degree-based education and training. For example, around half of associate and bachelor’s degree holders report they also have completed some kind of nondegree program or credential. Similarly, 3 in 5 adults with some college credit but not a degree have completed a nondegree credential or program. By contrast, only 1 in 5 adults with a high school education or less have completed a nondegree credential or training.
Among nondegree credentials, professional licenses and certifications are more common than educational certificates: Thirty percent of adults report having a professional license or certification, while 19 percent report having earned an educational certificate. Similar to adults who combined degree and nondegree training, individuals commonly combine different kinds of nondegree credentials: Among adults who have a nondegree credential, 1 in 4 report having both an educational certificate and a professional license or certification.
The institutions that award nondegree credentials are heterogeneous. Unlike degrees, which are exclusively awarded by colleges and universities, nondegree credentials are awarded by a diverse array of education and training providers. No single type of institution awards more than 20 percent of nondegree credentials. Together, adults with a nondegree credential from colleges and universities comprise nearly half of nondegree credential holders. While individual businesses and companies represent a disproportionate share of the discourse surrounding nondegree education and training, only 1 in 10 nondegree credential holders received their credential from a private company or business.
Nondegree programs and credentials offer a substantial premium over high school.
Nondegree and associate degree programs are comparable when it comes to alumni ratings, but bachelor’s degree programs remain the gold standard in American postsecondary education and training. However, individuals with nondegree credentials are more likely than those without to report their degrees were worth the cost, make them attractive job candidates, and helped them achieve their goals. This nondegree credential lift is particularly pronounced with associate degrees. Even without a college degree, nondegree credential holders are just as likely as bachelor’s degree holders to say their education helped them achieve their goals (49 percent and 48 percent, respectively). On average, nondegree credentials add value across the spectrum of educational attainment.
*Note: “Bachelor’s or higher “and “Associate” categories are inclusive of individuals who may have additionally completed a nondegree credential. “Nondegree” is inclusive of individuals who completed a nondegree credential but not a degree.
The comparative labor market outcomes of degree and nondegree programs reveal a similar trend: Nondegree credentials lead to outcomes similar to associate degrees but lag behind bachelor’s degrees. Adults with associate degrees and nondegree credentials reported earnings of $50,000 annually, a substantial premium over the median earnings of high school graduates ($32,000) but substantially less than adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher ($75,000). Roughly 3 in 5 workers with nondegree credentials or associate degrees are satisfied with their jobs, compared to 7 in 10 adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. It is also notable that there is not a strong relationship between educational attainment and job satisfaction: High school graduates experience similar rates of job satisfaction compared to workers with associate degrees and nondegree credentials.
Although the earnings of workers with nondegree credentials is similar to associate degree holders on average, they are more likely to be in the bottom earnings tier of less than $30,000 annually. Twenty-seven percent of workers with nondegree credentials earn less than $30,000 annually, compared to only 20 percent of workers with associate degrees and 10 percent of workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher. In other words, there is more downside risk to nondegree credentials than college degrees.
Alumni who combine degree and nondegree experiences rate their education substantially higher than those who earned a degree in isolation, especially those with associate degrees. Among adults with associate degrees or higher, those with nondegree credentials consistently rate the quality and value of their education higher than those with college degrees alone.
Among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, adults with nondegree credentials were an average of 6 percentage points more likely to say their education was worth the cost, helped them achieve their goals, and made them a more attractive candidate for jobs. For adults with associate degrees, the premium associated with nondegree credentials is even larger. For example, while 43 percent of adults with only an associate degree said their education made them an attractive candidate for jobs, 70 percent of those with an associate degree and a nondegree credential said the same — a difference of 27 percentage points.
By contrast, the nondegree premiums associated with earnings and job satisfaction rates were marginal for adults with college degrees. There was no difference in median annual earnings, for example, among adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher who had a nondegree credential and those who did not have a nondegree credential. Among associate degree holders, those with nondegree credentials earn $5,000 (11 percent) more annually than those without nondegree credentials, but the largest premium associated with nondegree credentials is for those with a high school education or less.
Longer certificate programs are not necessarily better: Certificate programs that take a month or less outperform those that take six months to a year to complete. While seat time (clock or credit hours) are commonly used as an indicator of quality and a criterion for financial aid eligibility, our analysis suggests that the length of a certificate program is a poor predictor of its outcomes. Comparing certificate programs of varied lengths does not reveal a clear or consistent pattern. In several cases, shorter programs lead to better outcomes than longer programs.
Among adults who report an educational certificate as their highest level of education, 85 percent of those who completed a program that ranged from one week to one month said it was worth the cost, for example, compared to 59 percent of those who completed a program that took between six months and a year to complete. On the other hand, longer certificate programs are associated with higher rates of believing their education makes them an attractive candidate for jobs, while there is no statistically significant difference by program length in the extent to which alumni believe their education helped them achieve their goals.
*Note: Data represent only adults who have completed an educational certificate but not an associate or bachelor’s degree. These adults have not necessarily earned a professional license or certification.
Similarly, there is no clear trend in earnings outcomes across program lengths. While those who completed very short certificate programs have the lowest earnings among certificate holders, those who complete programs between one and six months earn more than those who complete programs between six months and a year. In theory, it is not the length of a program that determines an individual’s earnings but rather the job or occupation to which a program provides access. In other words, shorter programs that provide access to higher-wage jobs — such as trade professions, engineering, or information technology — will lead to higher earnings than longer programs that provide access to lower-wage jobs, such as cosmetology or education. On the other hand, there is a weak but positive relationship between a certificate holder’s program length and their job satisfaction.
Outcomes vary across programs and providers: Health care programs were the highest-rated among fields, while community colleges were associated with the highest alumni ratings among institutions that issue nondegree credentials. Among adults with nondegree credentials, those with health care credentials rated their education the highest, while those with computer science credentials rated their education the lowest, though the trends were mixed across the three metrics used. Those with computer science credentials, for example, were more likely than several other fields analyzed to say their education helped them achieve their goals, but they were less likely to say their education made them an attractive candidate for jobs.
Among institutions that issue nondegree credentials, community colleges consistently received the highest alumni ratings across all three metrics: Seventy-eight percent of those with a nondegree credential from a community college said it was worth the cost; 67 percent said it made them an attractive candidate for jobs; and 61 percent said it helped them achieve their goals. Nondegree credential holders who received their credential from a vocational or technical college also rated their education highly. Nondegree credentials from individual businesses or companies and professional associations received the lowest quality and value ratings among nondegree credential issuers.
Across demographic groups, alumni ratings of nondegree credentials varied only slightly by parents’ education, gender, and generation. The most substantial and noteworthy difference in outcomes was across racial and ethnic groups: Specifically, Black Americans with nondegree credentials rated the quality and value of nondegree credentials substantially higher than both Latinos and white Americans. Conversely, white nondegree credential holders rated the quality and value of nondegree credentials substantially lower, with only 53 percent saying their education made them an attractive candidate for jobs and 46 percent saying their education helped them achieve their goals.
It is also noteworthy that gender-based differences in the ratings of nondegree programs were minimal. Gender-based field and occupational segregation among nondegree credential holders is high: Women who earn nondegree credentials are concentrated in low-wage fields and occupations such as health care support, education, and cosmetology, while men are concentrated in middle-wage fields such as construction, blue-collar trades, and transportation. This segregation corresponds with wide gender-based earnings differences among workers with nondegree credentials. These gender-based differences in earnings among workers with nondegree credentials do not correspond to gender-based differences in how alumni perceive the quality and value of their education.
Results for the Strada-Gallup Education Survey are based on web surveys conducted from April 2 to June 2, 2020, and Oct. 1 to Dec. 22, 2020, with a random sample of adults ages 18 to 65, living in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. For the national survey, there were 10,361 responses in the spring wave and 3,478 responses in the fall wave. Gallup randomly selected individuals to participate in the study using an address-based sample frame. Respondents had the opportunity to respond to the survey via web or mail. Surveys were conducted in English and Spanish.
Samples were weighted to correct for unequal selection probability and nonresponse. Demographic weighting targets are based on the 2018 American Community Survey figures for the ages 18 to 65 population. The data were weighted to match national demographics of age, education, gender, race, ethnicity, region, labor force participation, and population density.
All reported margins of sampling error for the study include the computed design effects for weighting.
For results based on the total sample of 5,600 individuals who completed nondegree credentials, the error range is ± 2.1 percentage points.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
In this brief, we analyze the outcomes of degree and nondegree education and training using five outcome metrics. Three are based on how alumni of the programs rated their education in their answers to three questions:
Survey respondents answered these questions using a five-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The other two outcome metrics are based on labor market outcomes, specifically earnings and rates of job satisfaction of alumni (also using a Likert scale with options ranging from very satisfied to very dissatisfied).
Across most measures, nondegree education and training experiences and credentials are combined, including professional licenses and certificates, educational certificates, and vocational and technical training. The exception is the question about the length of one’s certificate program which is specified for educational certificates only. Bases used throughout the analysis vary and are specified in each chart.
Annual earnings are reported for workers who identify themselves as in the workforce (employed full- or part-time, or unemployed and looking for work).
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