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New Research Shows Community Colleges are a Great Way To Boost Career Prospects – Without Getting a Degree

Can getting a non-degree credential from a college enhance your career prospects?  

New research shows the answer is absolutely yes. 

Along with “online learning,” perhaps the most significant change to modern education is the rise of non-degree credentials. A new report from the Strada Education Network shows that while non-degree credentials (excluding professional licensure) used to be a minor supplement to an education, they are increasingly seen as crucial additions to a college education, and even the primary educational attainment for people who have not gone to college. 

According to the report, a full 40% of working-age Americans have completed a non-degree program or earned a non-degree credential. That’s just slightly less than the 46% of American adults who have a college degree. A full 20% of American adults list a non-degree credential or program as their highest level of education. 

Calbright was founded to support people who are looking for a non-degree certificate to drive their economic mobility. A number of private companies, including major tech giants, have been creating similar programs. But there is still relatively little research on what non-degree credentials do for job seekers — especially diverse student populations — and what kind of programs best support them.  

For institutions whose purpose is to support disadvantaged students, it matters a lot to know: is what we’re doing the best kind of support we can offer?

Strada’s new research suggests that right now community colleges, like Calbright, are best-in-class when it comes to non-degree education programs. 

Satisfaction is High at Community Colleges

A wide variety of institutions offer non-degree credentials, including public colleges, for-profit educational institutions, and businesses offering certificates in the areas they hire for. No single type of institution, Strada found, awards more than 20 percent of the non-degree credentials earned in the U.S.  

Of those institutions, community colleges scored the highest in student and alumni satisfaction: 

  • 78 percent said it was worth the cost;
  • 67 percent said it made them an attractive candidate for jobs; and
  • 61 percent said it helped them achieve their goals.

That’s significantly higher than those offered by individual businesses and companies, whose students and alumni rated them 54%, 40%, and 49% respectively.  

So while there’s still much to learn, the approach taken by community colleges is clearly the current best-in-class. Community Colleges are leading, not following.  

The Most Vulnerable Populations Get the Most Out of Non-Degree Programs

“The largest premium associated with nondegree credentials is for those with a high school education or less,” the report says, which pairs well with Calbright’s focus on supporting education equity across diverse populations.  

People who have an associate degree or less as their highest level of education receive a significant benefit from holding a non-degree credential, the report notes. They “reported earnings of $50,000 annually, a substantial premium over the median earnings of high school graduates ($32,000).”  

(Note that this data is taken from across the country, and thus is not specifically reflective of California salaries.)  

Calbright’s student body is exceptionally diverse, with an outsized representation (24%) of Black students when compared to California’s population (6.5% according to the U.S. Census Bureau). The report’s finding that Black Americans expressed notable satisfaction with their non-degree credentials reflects the tangible need for our unique model of education and importance of serving traditionally marginalized communities.

Also good news for Calbright: shorter non-degree programs do better than long ones. While Calbright is self-paced, and encourages students to work at a schedule that works for them, we are also focused on getting students through the program and into their new work as quickly as possible.

“Our analysis suggests that the length of a certificate program is a poor predictor of its outcomes,” the report says. “Comparing certificate programs of varied lengths does not reveal a clear or consistent pattern. In several cases, shorter programs lead to better outcomes than longer programs.”

A Great Development in Adult Education

While the boost from a non-degree credential was highest for people with associate degrees or less, “[W]e find that nondegree credentials yield positive returns, especially when combined with associate and bachelor’s degrees,” the report concluded. Non-degree programs like ours are a way that people of diverse backgrounds and varied levels of educational attainment can boost their prospects in the modern economy. 

We’re off to a great start, and research like this helps us get even better.

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