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News / Northwest

Study: Not all college work boosts future earnings

The Columbian
Published: November 6, 2014, 12:00am

SEATTLE — A short-term college certificate, for a very specific job-training program like how to use computers for office work, probably won’t help students earn more money in the long run, a new study has found.

However, if those classes are later applied to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, college then becomes a good investment, no matter what major a student chooses, according to a study published today in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis. The research was paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

While previous research has shown a four-year college degree can double a person’s earning potential and an associate’s degree can boost earnings by as much as 22 percent, few studies have made the same assessment for shorter college stays.

This study looks at education and employment data for more than 24,000 students who attended Washington community and technical colleges beginning in the 2001-2002 school year.

Seven years later, data showed minimal or no positive effects for college certificates that required less than a year of full-time study on increased wages or an increased likelihood of being employed, according to researchers from the Oakland, Calif., Career Ladders Project and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teacher’s College.

Jan Yoshiwara of the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges didn’t find the results surprising.

“We’ve known for quite some time that short-term certificates alone as the starting point for people looking for their first career job will get them a job but won’t lead to a long career and wage gain,” said Yoshiwara, the board’s deputy executive director for education.

The state is focusing on finding ways to help more people get associates degrees and long-term certificates, even if they have to take classes in chunks while they work and take care of families, she said.

Yoshiwara calls this approach acquiring stackable certificates. For example, Renton Technical College has an accounting program that starts with a two-quarter certificate to gain practical work skills, which leads to a four-quarter paraprofessional program and then a six-quarter program focused on professional bookkeeping and accounting skills.

Whatcom Community College offers a similar approach that leads to an associate’s degree in early childhood education.

But in order to push more students toward associate’s degrees, the state will need to change financial aid policies to help people go to school while still working at relatively low-wage jobs, which may make them ineligible for other kinds of financial aid, Yoshiwara said.

The results also reveal the importance of career counselors at both the college and high school level, said Mina Dadgar, director of research at the nonprofit Career Ladders Project.

For an example, she used career counseling in the field of nursing. Students can make a lot more money if they work toward an associate’s degree in nursing, but they need to know which shorter-term certificates include classes that earn credits toward that degree and which ones don’t.