June 7, 2012 at 7:15 AM ET
A small amount of education can go a long way toward improving your earnings potential, especially if you’re a man, according to a new study.
The study from Georgetown University found that certificates in fields like computer and information services, transportation and business can boost earnings by 20 percent, on average, over people who just have high school diplomas.
That’s not the result researchers were expecting when they started delving into the little-researched world of certificates, which are generally offered by for-profit institutions and community colleges in specific fields and trades.
“We were surprised,” said lead author Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
The researchers found that, on average, people with a certificate earn $34,946 a year, compared with $29,202 for those with just a high school degree. The results were based on an analysis of four different government data sets looking at earnings, education and other factors.
Those average salaries are still lower than for people with an associate's or bachelor's degree, although the researchers found that for some the certificates also provided a stepping stone to those higher degrees.
Still, the data offered one major caveat: They offered a much bigger advantage in male-dominated fields than in female-dominated fields.
Carnevale said that in programs where the majority of students were women, such as cosmetology and some health care fields, certificates had much less value in terms of salary gains. He said that’s in large part because those fields offer low pay and little room for advancement.
In male-dominated fields, the story was quite different. There were much bigger salary gains for people who got certificates in fields such as electronics or refrigeration, heating and air conditioning, Carnevale said. On average men with certificates made 27 percent more than men with only a high school degree, while women saw a 16 percent differential.
Certificate programs often are quite short – sometimes less than a year – which means they tend to be cheaper and more accessible than two-year associate degrees or four-year bachelor's programs.
That can make certificates an attractive option for people who are looking to improve their earnings power but don’t have the time, money or inclination to go for a more traditional degree.
The number of certificates being earned in the United States has skyrocketed in recent years to about 1 million a year, compared with 300,000 in 1994, and 12 percent of Americans now say that a certificate is their highest level of education.
Some previous researchers have been less enthusiastic about certificate programs, arguing they can be a waste of time because they result in only very small increases in pay.
The Georgetown researchers say others may have reached that conclusion because so many certificates are handed out in health care fields where there are little gains. But a deeper look at specific programs and outcomes shows some certificates offer much more lucrative returns.
Obviously not all certificates are created equal, and Carnevale noted that it’s important for students to choose a programs that can potentially lead to a well-paying and stable career. Even relatively short certificate programs frequently result in hefty student debt. And a program that leads to a certificate is likely to be applicable only to very specific jobs.
“If you pick the wrong certificate it will hurt you more than if you pick the wrong major,” Carnevale said.
By contrast a college degree generally boosts earnings significantly regardless of major or field of study.
The weak economy and high jobless rate has highlighted a growing divide between those who are educated and those who are not. The unemployment rate for people with just a high school degree is double that of people with a bachelor’s degree, and job growth for less educated people has been painfully slow.
“We’re living in a world where postsecondary education and training is for everyone, just about,” Carnevale said. “It’s not about college anymore. It’s about education and training after high school.”