Relative Advantages of Associate Degrees and Certificates

A new in-depth study of the educational and employment outcomes of low-income students suggests that low-income students who struggle in high school get more of an earnings boost by earning a certificate than they do achieving an associate degree at a two-year college. The study, “Pathways to Boosting the Earnings of Low-Income Students by Increasing Their Educational Attainment,” is based on data produced by the State of Florida’s unusual system for linking its citizens’ education and employment records. Among its findings:

  • Access to college depends heavily on students’ financial backgrounds. Only 55 percent of students who qualified for free and reduced lunch (a federal proxy for low family income) attended college, compared to 62 percent of other students. Twenty-five percent of free and reduced lunch students attended college within two years (compared to 39 percent of other students) and 17 percent completed a year’s worth of college, compared to 30 percent. Non-free and reduced lunch students were also more than twice as likely as their less-wealthy peers to earn a college credential within six years.
  • Students who achieved a higher credential earned more money. Those who earned a certificate had median earnings that were 27 percent higher than than those with no college credential; those with a bachelor’s degree earned about 35 percent more than those with no credential; and those with graduate degrees made about 62 percent more. Interestingly, though, students with just an A.A. degree did only 8 percent better than those with no credential at all—quite a bit less well than those with certificates. “… These results suggest that it is feasible for students who attend two-year colleges and do not go on to complete four-year programs to increase their earnings substantially by completing the courses needed to obtain a certificate,” the study’s authors wrote.