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The Rise of Postsecondary Certificates in the US

May 31, 2016 by Luke Mason

When it became apparent that wages wouldn’t quickly recover from the 2007 recession, workers sought an edge in the job market by going back to school. But degrees can be expensive and time-consuming, so many turned to certificates and community colleges to gain valuable new skills.

Postsecondary certificates—vocational awards that require less than two years to complete—not only prove skill mastery, but they pave the way for middle-skill jobs. Nurses, welders, and machinists—popular middle-skill occupations—all benefit from certifications that quickly prepare workers for the job field. These jobs are important to communities, as they have a significant impact on local economies.

Soaring Postsecondary Certificate Completions

Many people affected by the recession didn’t look to community college or certificates right away. However, due to the snail’s pace of wage growth, many started exploring advancement alternatives and certificate completions really took off in 2010.


Emsi data (which is informed by IPEDS) covers two kinds of certificates: long-term and short-term. Long-term certificates require more than a year, but less than two years of full-time study. Short-term certificates require less than one year of full-time study.

In 2010, both short-term (21%) and long-term (18%) certificate completions rose significantly compared to the previous year. The following year, short-term completions actually fell (-3%), but long-term completions rose dramatically (30%). Combined, postsecondary completions increased by 33% from 2009 to 2011—with annual completions soaring over 1 million.

Although completions dropped somewhat from 2011’s high point (1,022,000 total), they remained strong through 2014 (970,100 total). Underemployed and displaced workers are still looking for any advantage they can get, as many suffer from wage scarring—a factor in the nation’s slow wage growth.

During the boom of post-recession certificates, four fields of study lead the pack of certificate completers. As of 2014, the most popular certifications were in the following areas:

  • Health care (364,733)
  • Personal and culinary services (137,384)
  • Business, management, and marketing (79,031)
  • Mechanic and repair technicians (71,406)

Colleges Working with Local Employers

While certificates have proven to be a useful method of workforce advancement, there’s still room to improve how they fit into the system of higher education. Transferring certificate credentials is often a messy proposition, leaving many community college students unsure if their certificate will lead to long-term career success.

Community colleges play an integral part in training the local workforce for regional jobs. Generally, as degree and certificate completions increase, so does the potential of the local workforce. Colleges like Pitt Community College have partnered with Emsi to align their programs with the needs of local employers. A similar effort needs to be made with certificate offerings. Together, community colleges and employers can work together to answer local needs and ensure the relevance of certificates.

“One way to increase the likelihood that employers will recognize these credentials is to create relationships between community colleges and nearby industries,” says Adela Soliz, a fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. Her article about the benefit of vocational certificates points out the need to work with employers to ensure postsecondary certifications are meaningful. Soliz highlights the Aspen Institute’s proposal for a nationally unifying certification system as a promising possibility.

Done right, certificates provide a clear path to valuable middle-skills jobs for displaced and underemployed workers—all while meeting the needs of regional employers and driving economic prosperity. It’s a win for businesses, educators, and the workforce.

For more information on this analysis or how you can use Emsi’s labor market data, please contact us. Follow Emsi on Twitter (@DesktopEcon) or check us out on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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