Alternative credentials: one in four adults holds a certification, license or certificate

A formal college degree isn't the only path to success in today's economy, U.S. Census Bureau finds.

A college degree is not be the only way to acquire and develop the right skills to succeed in today's economy. Many individuals have acquired professional accreditations to advance in the job market.

That's the latest finding of the U.S. Census Bureau, which released estimates that more than 50 million U.S. adults, or one in four of the working-age population, has obtained a professional certification, license or educational certificate apart from a post-secondary degree awarded by a college or university. The bureau reports that 12 million adults had both a professional certification or license and an educational certificate; 34 million had only a professional certification or license; and 7 million had only an educational certificate.

The fields of these professional certifications and licenses were wide-ranging and include business/finance management, nursing, education, cosmetology and culinary arts, among others.

In a fast-changing economy, new skillsets are constantly in demand. Areas in hot demand right now -- such as data science and analysis, cloud development, and open-source scripting languages -- were not even around five years ago. Corporate training departments are having difficulty keeping up, and returning to college is too expensive and time-consuming an option for job-seekers. 

As Stephanie Ewert, a demographer with the Census Bureau's Education and Social Stratification Branch and co-author of the report, Measuring Alternative Educational Credentials: 2012, put it:

"Getting an academic degree is not the only way for people to develop skills that pay off in the labor market. We've been able to measure for the first time how many people take another route to a productive career: holding an alternative educational credential independent of traditional college degrees. It turns out that millions of people have taken this path."

The report also shows that alternative credentials potentially provide a path to higher earnings. Among full-time workers, the median monthly earnings for someone with a professional certification or license only was $4,167, compared with $3,110 for people without any alternative credential. While there was little difference for those with bachelor's degrees and certifications, a certification, license or certificate made a difference for those with no formal college degree.

About three-quarters of professional certifications and licenses were required for the current or most recent job. More than 90 percent of these credential holders took training or courses and had to demonstrate on-the-job skills or pass a test or exam in order to earn them. People working in technical occupations were the most likely to hold an alternative credential (71 percent).

(Thumbnail Photo: US Bureau of the Census.)

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