Are vocational certificates the future of higher education?

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

For higher education reform, alternative credentials such as vocational certificates have blossomed as a way to provide skills training that leads to a job.

However, it’s not clear whether they actually benefit the students who earn them, as Adela Soliz noted for the Brookings Institution.

Until more research is done, and standards are improved, students might be wasting their time on irrelevant certifications.

“On the one hand, these credentials could be tightly coupled with local labor market needs and provide students with tangible skills that could help them get jobs.  On the other hand, these short programs of study could leave students with a credential that means little to employers and offers them no clear avenue to additional schooling,” Soliz wrote.

Some research has found minimal benefits resulting from short-form certificates (less than one year of study), but better economic returns for long-form certificates (one to less than two years of study), though neither top the benefits of an associate’s degree. As is the general trend, more years of education correlate with higher economic returns on average.

For certifications to be effective, how they’re implemented is key. If community colleges have strong connections with the local economy, they can craft them to develop student skills that are in demand in the local economy. That keeps graduates in the area and provides a stronger economic base to grow from. If community colleges don’t build those links between education and industry, it’s up to the students to make those certifications pay off, which can be difficult.

If that doesn’t happen, the certificates become an empty credential disconnected from the goals of most students, which is to find a well-paying job after graduation.

They appear to benefit students, at least in a relative sense. “Certificate holders earn 20 percent more than workers who hold only a high school diploma,” according to Inside Higher Ed, but the research remains spotty. One-third of those certificate holders also have an associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree, so the certificate could be a sign of other attributes that help a worker earn a higher wage, rather than the certificate as a useful transfer of skills.

Critics claim that in some industries, such as software technology, certificates teach skills that become outdated too quickly for the credential to matter. It might be better to eschew short-term certificates for long-term ones, at least until they can be improved.

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