Short-term credentials: Necessary and often valuable, but proceed with cautionAug. 10, 2021
Certificates and other short-term credentials can be the pathway to a better life and career, but they also come with their share of caveats.
That’s the message of Episode 28 of Lumina Foundation’s podcast, “Today’s Students/Tomorrow’s Talent.” My guests – Kermit Kaleba, Lumina strategy director; Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia; Jesse O’Connell, Lumina federal policy director, Lumina Foundation; Randy Stamper, assistant vice chancellor, Virginia Community College System; and Monique Ositelu, senior policy analyst, New America, and founder and data strategist at Itàn set out with me to answer these questions about the nearly 1 million different credentials available in the United States:
- What do we know the programs leading to these credentials?
- How do we build and sustain effective programs that build knowledge and skills?
- What do we need to focus on as these programs become more widely available?
Kaleba points out that roughly 30 percent to 35 percent of jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but they also cannot be done without some education and training beyond a high school diploma. Those are jobs like construction worker, nursing assistant, and IT help desk worker. Wages for positions such as these average $45,000 a year, compared with $30,000 for jobs that do not require a credential.
Earning these credentials can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years. But unlike other forms of education, job training is not particularly well funded. The federal government provides $3 billion to states for job funding, which is about one-tenth of the amount available for Pell grants.
Several states have created programs to attempt to level the field, and the federal government is looking to do the same. Kaine, whose father ran a welding company, shares a story about his son, an infantry commander in the Marines, who could authorize $4,500 for one of his people to take a college class but couldn’t award $300 to someone under his charge who wanted to take a welding-certification course.
Kaine tells us that he and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, are working on legislation that would provide funding for students who go into quality Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs because “we shouldn’t deprive young people … because the path they want isn’t in a 14-week course.”
At the same time, Kaine says, the federal government needs to ensure the quality of credentials so that students end up in schools that elevate their skills and put them on the path to a good living.
That is the goal of programs such as Virginia’s Fast Forward, which covers two-thirds of a student’s expense for technical training after they finish their coursework and receive their credentials. Stamper said in the five years the program has existed, 92 percent of students have completed the coursework, and 70 percent have earned credentials. During that period, the state’s allocation for the program has tripled, from $4.5 million a year to $13.5 million.
Stamper shares other numbers worth noting: Fast Forward graduates average 35 percent pay increases, and up to 85 percent have healthcare benefits, paid time off, and a dependable work schedule for the first time in their work lives.
Meanwhile, though, New America’s Ositelu said her research has found that short-term programs—those that take less than a year to complete—have small returns on investment in the form of higher earnings.
Short-term credentials vary a lot, she says. There are positive outcomes, but they’re nowhere near those of earning associate and bachelor’s degrees.
In addition, the value depends on the field of study. Healthcare workers get far less benefit from their certificates than students in the construction trades. Also, students of color and women are more likely to earn certificates with relatively low financial returns, and Black workers do better financially when they earn longer-term credentials than with certificates.
Ositelu said we should proceed with caution, so we can provide quality and equitable short-term credential programs for everyone. We need affordable programs and institutional accountability to help ensure students are trained for jobs in demand. And we need to ensure that students know how to navigate their career paths after they have earned credentials.
The message from our guests in this episode is clear: Short-term credentials can be effective ways of improving your quality of life. The jobs of today and tomorrow require education or training after high school. But it’s important to remind ourselves that these credentials come in many forms from many education and training providers, and they must be designed with a focus on employment outcomes and even more learning ahead, especially for people of color and women.