Community College Certificates Can Fatten Your Wallet

In May of last year, BE Smart published a short piece on preliminary research results that suggested that health careers offered rich opportunities and higher salaries to students who graduated from community college.

More recent research shows that students who complete a community college program of study that awards them a certificate also earn a fatter paycheck–and health careers, again, provide the biggest bang for the buck.

More people are earning certificates–a credential that typically takes less time to finish than a two-year degree. Across the U.S., nearly one million certificates were awarded in 2013—2014, or 33% more than in 2006—2007, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

A 2012 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce refers to certificates as, “Bite-sized educational awards … [that] provide the on-ramp to college education and middle-class jobs for low-income, minority, and immigrant Americans, who are often the first in their families to attend college.”

For the study, What About Certificates? Evidence on the Labor Market Returns to Nondegree Community College Awards in Two States, researchers examined data from community college systems in Virginia and North Carolina.

Among the key findings:

  • Earning a community college certificate generally leads to higher earnings. However, the financial benefit varies considerably and, just as with college degrees, depends on the field of study, as well as the state where the person is employed, and, critically, whether the credential is short-term (taking less than one year of full-time study to complete) or long-term (taking a year or more of full-time study). A long-term certificate in the field of mechanics, repair, and welding, for example, was associated with a $1,632 increase in quarterly earnings in Virginia. A short-term certificate in the same field was associated with only a $240 increase in quarterly earnings in North Carolina.
  • On average, short-term certificates were associated with an additional $278 in quarterly earnings in North Carolina. In Virginia, the difference was $153.
  • Long-term certificates were associated with an average increase in quarterly earnings of $953 in North Carolina and $200 in Virginia.
  • Health careers continue to produce the most robust benefits. In both states, long-term certificates in nursing yielded the largest increases in quarterly earnings: $3,515 in North Carolina and $1,644 in Virginia.

The researchers also suggested non-monetary benefits to earning certificates. Such credentials may increase your chance of breaking into an industry that offers flexibility or stability.