Associate degrees
American colleges gave out 1.95 million associate degrees and certificates combined in 2016. Source: Pexels

American students began earning associate degrees and certificates at an equal rate to bachelor’s degrees as early as 2016. Recently-analysed data from that year shows that colleges awarded 1.95 million associate degrees and certificates combined, compared to 1.92 million bachelor’s degrees.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) published these findings in The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate’s Degrees report, which also contains the labour market outcomes of these degrees across 10 states. Blue-collar employees were found to earn the highest salary out of all their certificate-holding peers. 

Graduates with associate degrees or certificates are able to match or beat the salaries of those with bachelor’s education in the workforce, particularly within skills-based industries. Nevertheless, researchers maintained that a four-year degree remains the “gold standard” for stable employment.

Associate degrees

Alternative credentials allow students to hone career-relevant skills without committing to a full degree programme. Source: Pexels

Value of alternative credentials

According to CEW director and lead report author Anthony Carnevale, the field of study matters most when it comes to certificates and associate’s degrees.

“A worker with an associate’s degree can earn more than a worker with a bachelor’s degree, and shorter-term credentials like certificates and certifications can out-earn associate’s degrees,” he said.

Alternative credentials allow students to hone career-relevant skills without committing to a full degree programme. In light of their growing industry relevance, more community and four-year colleges are reportedly offering stackable credentials. This allows students to build up their qualifications over time, gradually closing the gap between workplace demand and industry skills.

Another CWE research from 2018 found that a quarter of all “good” jobs in the US required more than high school education, but less than a degree. The demand for these middle-skill jobs jumped by 83 percent between 1991 and 2016, translating to 3.2 million positions.

Colleges step up

Associate degrees and certificates have been on the uptick because they focus on training employees to fit the needs of a company or industry. CEW data shows that 57 percent of associate-degrees programmes and 94 percent of certificate programmes are tailored to helping graduates find employment in the field.

In a time rife with uncertainty over future jobs and economies, more graduates are opting for this career-oriented approach and employers are taking notice. In fact, companies are increasingly partnering with colleges to train their future workforce.

Take Google, which is working to expand its IT certificate training programme to 100 community colleges by the end of 2020. This is done through workforce development organisation Jobs for the Future, which customises the certificate for Google’s requirements. On top of that, Google is collaborating with colleges to ensure students with their certificate can easily transform their qualification into credits. 

Why? Well, IT support specialists are highly in demand. With this certificate, graduates are able to move to a well-established profession that earns them a median annual salary of $52,000. 

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