earning money with a certificate or two-year degreeIt stands to reason that the higher the degree you earn, the higher your salary will be … right? But we’ve discovered that’s not always the case.

According to a new study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, certificates actually can pay off more than a two- or four-year degree.

The report, “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees,” reveals that 39 percent of male certificate holders earn more than men with an associate degree, and 24 percent earn more than men with a bachelor’s degree. Among wom­en with certificates, 34 percent earn more than women with an associate degree, and 23 percent earn more than women with a bachelor’s degree.

So it’s no surprise that certificates are the fastest growing form of postsecondary credentials in the U.S., increasing from 6 percent of postsecondary awards in 1980 to 22 percent of awards today, with more than one million certificates awarded each year.

In my mind, the question is why? Why would a short-term credential be more of a money-maker than a full-blown college degree?

One possible answer is that certificates tend to be occupationally focused, providing train­ing in specific fields as opposed to the broader general education emphasis of two- and four-year degrees. Certificates can help workers bolster skills or learn new ones in a tight job market. Earning a certificate is a way for workers to position themselves for new job opportunities, a salary increase, or a new career altogether.

In addition, pursuing a certificate can help workers sidestep concerns about rising college costs and student loan debt. As the quickest education and job training awards available in higher education, certificates are usually short-term (a year or less) and cost-effective.

Of course, not just any certificate will do. Certificate holders receive the greatest return on investment when they earn a credential in a field in which they are presently working – and an in-demand, high-earning field at that. On average, certificate holders who work in-field earn 37 percent more than those who work out of field.

For example, male certificate holders who work in computer/information services earn $72,498 per year, which is more than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent of men with a bachelor’s degree. Female certificate holders working in the same field earn $56,664, which is greater than 75 percent of women with an associate degree and 64 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree. (This brings up a troubling gender disparity, but that’s a topic for another post.) Electronics and business/office management are two additional fields where certificate holders tend to make more money than degree holders.

Certificates and college degrees are not mutually exclusive, though. The report shows that one-third of certificate holders also have an associate, bachelor’s or graduate degree. Plus, certificates can be a stepping stone to a degree – 20 percent of certificate holders go on to earn a two-year degree, and an additional 13 percent continue on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

It’s a good reminder that there are a variety of educational paths available to help you reach your goals. Depending on your field, a certificate can be an excellent alternative, supplement, or stepping stone within your higher education.

–Robyn Tellefsen


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