Associate Degrees and Certificates are More Valuable Than you may Think

As its name suggests, the middle-skills pathway sits between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree. There are a wide variety of credentials associated with this pathway, but certificates and associate degrees are the most popular. In general, associate degrees include a mix of general education courses and career preparation, while certificates are almost exclusively career oriented.

Due to a lack of consistent data sources, information on middle-skills pathway credentials is scarce. A recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce seeks to remedy this by examining certificates and associate degrees using data from the Adult Training and Education Survey, the American Community Survey, and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. The report examines three aspects in particular: the prevalence of certificates and associate degrees, the demographic characteristics of the students who enroll in and complete these programs, and the associated labor market outcomes. 

Among the states that provided data, associate degree programs in the health profession ranked in the top five fields of study with the highest earnings. Engineering was also a valuable field: Associate degree programs in engineering technologies were within the top earning fields in every state, and certificates in engineering technology placed in the top five of earnings in eight of ten states. The authors also found additional evidence that, in some states, a certificate or associate degree holder in the right field can make as much as a worker with a bachelor’s degree. 

The report ends with calls for greater transparency around the labor-market value of middle-skill credentials. The authors note that students need better assurances that their investments of time and money are worth it, and that policymakers and educators should focus on strengthening all pathways to and through college. They also offer several policy recommendations, including expanding federal postsecondary data collection efforts and strengthening accountability for career-oriented programs.

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For a summary of report findings and a link to the full report, see