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Study: Quickie Degrees Basically Useless

Short-term certificate programs, an alternative form of post-secondary education that has surged in popularity in recent years, produce almost no return on investment for students, research has found.

A new paper financed by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the academic journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis focuses on programs offered in Washington state in the years 2001 and 2002, and finds that 8 years after graduation individuals who obtained short-term certificates had earnings essentially indistinguishable from those who completed no degree at all.

Short-term certificates are rapid degree programs offered at many community colleges that are designed to provide certification in some basic field in less than a year’s time (programs taking more than a year are deemed long-term certificates). They are commonly offered in relatively simple technical fields such as medical billing and business information systems. With college costs continuing to rise far faster than inflation, short-term certificates have a great deal of appeal, as they offer a chance to earn a quick, meaningful credential at a fraction of the cost in time and money of earning a four-year degree. In recent years, the certificates have surged in popularity, with the number of students receiving such degrees surging by over 150 percent from 200o to 2010. Today, about one quarter of all community college degrees are short-term certificates.

However, the boost to earnings promised by such a certificate proves to be illusory the vast majority of the time, researchers found. In most fields, students earning short-term certificates simply saw no statistically significant earnings boost over their less-educated peers. This was the case even in fields, such as nursing, where a 2-year associates degrees or long-term certificate did result in major earnings gains of 30 percent or more. In the handful of fields that did see a salary gain, such as protective services, the boost was limited to only about $1000 per year.

“Although we would not go so far as to say that short-term certificates never have any value, the evidence is suggestive that they tend to have minimal value over attending college and earning some credits [without graduating],” researchers wrote.

The study has important implications for policymakers when it comes to education, as to this point there has been little research into the particular benefits of short-term certificates. Part of the growing popularity in degree programs lasting under a full four years stems from a desire to increase degree completion rates, based on the principle that finishing a short program is more valuable than simply doing part of a longer one. This research suggests there is a lower limit to that thinking, and that policymakers may want to focus on making associates degrees more accessible instead.

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