More than half of Americans between ages 25 and 64 lack a credential beyond the high school diploma, which significantly hinders their employment opportunities. This report examines outcomes for adults who obtain postsecondary credentials other than traditional degrees.

These non-degree credentials, a growing option for high school graduates, include credit and non-credit certificates and other credentials earned within two years. The report’s findings stem from seven studies involving 49 community and technical colleges.

Overview of findings

Overall, non-degree credentials are associated with increased employment and, to a lesser extent, increased earnings for adult learners. Specifically, the studies show that:

  • Non-degree credential-holders are more likely to be employed than are those who lack a credential. Across all data sets, earning a non-degree credential of any kind was associated with a 5%-to-15% increase in the likelihood of being employed, or a 7% percent increase across all data sets.
  • Even shorter-term credentials can yield employment benefits. Earning a credential of less than six months has a significant, positive association with employment outcomes. The boost to employment for short-term credential holders ranged from 4% to 7%.
  • Though less consistent than findings related to employment, non-degree credentials generate earnings benefits, particularly longer-term credentials. Adults with a six-to-12-month credential increased earnings by an average of $2,600 per quarter. Adults with a credential of more than one but no more than two years increased earnings by nearly $4,600 per quarter.
  • Non-degree credentials provide benefits in the health care and manufacturing sectors. Non-degree credentials in manufacturing and health care are consistently associated with higher employment. The data suggest that earning a non-degree credential in the health care field is associated with higher earnings. Absolute earnings for credential holders in manufacturing are larger.


Based on these findings, federal and state policies should continue to provide incentives for colleges to connect and embed shorter-term credentials in the pathways that lead to longer-term credentials. Title IV financial aid programs could be revised to support the pursuit of shorter-term, non-degree credentials that have demonstrated labor market value.

Labor Market Returns From Nondegree Credentials | Inside Higher Ed | Aug. 12, 2019