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Occupational Certificates: Examining Student Characteristics and Enrollment Outcomes Across the Public and For-Profit Sectors


by Lyle McKinney, Andrea Burridge & Moumita Mukherjee — 2017

Background/Context: Sub-baccalaureate certificates can provide an accelerated pathway to gainful employment for the unemployed or underemployed. Certificates represented only 6% of postsecondary awards in 1980, but today they represent 22% of all credentials awarded and have superseded associate’s and master’s degrees as the second most common award granted by U.S. postsecondary institutions. Although enrollment in certificate programs has skyrocketed, empirical research on this student population is scarce.

Focus of the Study: The purpose of this study was to compare the demographic characteristics, college financing strategies, and enrollment outcomes of occupational certificate students across the three institutional sectors: community colleges, public career and technical centers, and sub-baccalaureate for-profit institutions.

Research Design: The data were derived from the Beginning Postsecondary Student Study (BPS:04/09) conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. The sample included students across the three institutional sectors who enrolled in a sub-baccalaureate certificate program that was occupationally focused (unweighted n =1,770). Data analysis included descriptive statistics, logistic regression, and multinomial regression techniques.

Findings: Six years after initial enrollment, certificate students beginning at for-profits had the lowest rates of credential completion but were much more likely than public sector students to have taken out loans and defaulted during repayment. Seventeen percent of certificate students beginning at a community college transferred to another institution at some point, suggesting that these programs can serve as a stepping stone to further education. Results from the regression models indicated that students’ race/ethnicity, income status, field of study, and institutional sector were associated with successful certificate completion and/or transfer.

Conclusions: Equipped with a better profile of certificate students and their educational outcomes, colleges can begin to design better support services and program structures that address the unique needs of this growing student population. These institutional efforts, along with well-designed public policies that boost the production of high-quality certificates, could help strengthen the U.S. workforce and increase educational attainment rates among students from less advantaged backgrounds.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 12, 2017, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21969, Date Accessed: 7/22/2017 8:35:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Lyle McKinney
    University of Houston
    E-mail Author
    LYLE MCKINNEY is an associate professor in the Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies program at the University of Houston. His research interests include community colleges, financial aid, and higher education policy. His recent publications include “Performance-based funding for community colleges: Are colleges disadvantaged by serving the most disadvantaged students?” published in the Journal of Higher Education, and “FAFSA filing among first-year college students: Who files on time, who doesn't, and why does it matter?” published in Research in Higher Education.
  • Andrea Burridge
    Houston Community College
    E-mail Author
    ANDREA BURRIDGE is a research and data analyst at Houston Community College. Her research interests include student access and success. Recent publications include “Language use contributes to expressive language growth: Evidence from bilingual children” published in Child Development, and “Helping or hindering? The effects of loans on community college student persistence” published in Research in Higher Education.
  • Moumita Mukherjee
    University of Houston
    E-mail Author
    MOUMITA MUKHERJEE is an assessment and evaluation manager at the University of Houston. Her research interests include student success. Recent publications include “Redesigning financial aid to better support community college borrowers” published in the Journal of Applied Research in the Community Colleges, and “Stretching every dollar: The impact of financial stress on the enrollment behaviors of working and non-working community college students” published in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice.
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