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represented only 6% of postsecondary awards in 1980, but today they represent 22% of all credentials awarded and have superseded associate’s and master’s degrees as the second most common award granted by U.S. postsecondary institutions.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.