Photo by Irwan iwe on Unsplash

A tale of two certificates

This newsletter is about the role of higher ed in society. Each week, we highlight how college is (or is not) working for citizens and communities. It goes out most Friday mornings — If someone forwarded this to you, you can sign up for your own copy here.


Not All Credentials Created Equal

Health care is booming. Lots of jobs, lots of opportunities. That’s what you’ve heard, anyway. Getting some training after high school — even just a year or so — can lead to a better paying job in what is sometimes called “allied health.” We’re talking about all those health-care jobs beyond being a doctor or a nurse.

Take Concorde Career College in Colorado, where students who complete a certificate in fields like Radiological Technology or Surgical Technologist (fields that are broadly defined as “Allied Health Diagnostic, Intervention, and Treatment”) earn an average of $41,000 two years later.

But Concorde also offers certificates in some other fields that sound awfully similar — things like Physical Therapist Assistant and Medical Assistant. The outcomes, though, are anything but. Four times as many students at the Colorado campus got certificates in these “Allied Health and Medical Assisting Services” programs than the diagnostic ones. Two years later, on average, they were earning less than a Colorado high school grad who never went to college. 

In fact, across the country, certificates in these medical-assisting programs are among the worst in terms of return on investment. More than half of them leave graduates earning less than a high school graduate. 

New data about earnings outcomes for thousands of specific programs gives us a glimpse at which degrees and credentials pay off in the short term. Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow at the think tank Third Way, analyzed the latest program-level data from the federal government for his report “Which College Programs Give Students the Best Bang for Their Buck?”

The good news: Earning a post-secondary credential is likely to pay off, and many of them do so rather quickly. 

The bad news: Over half of students who complete a certificate are still earning less than someone with no college experience whatsoever. Itzkowitz: “Even two years after they’ve completed their credential, there are 353,000 students that entered these programs and are showing no ROI. However, these programs continue to get federal funding and funnel students into them on an annual basis.”

What’s next, according to Itzkowitz: Will administrators, state policy makers and federal policy makers start to look at these specific types of programs to see, okay, this one’s not working very well? Maybe we should start funneling students into these other programs at our institution that are providing students with strong economic opportunities.”

Unfortunately, taken in total, many more students are in the poor-performing certificate programs than the strong ones. Look at allied health again. For every student that completed a diagnostic-oriented certificate, nine more finished one in the medical-assisting fields.

This data is a reminder that, as with a lot of things in higher education, painting the entire enterprise with a broad brush is pointless. Credentials are both worth every penny and entirely worthless. How do we get better at talking about which are which? And what responsibility do colleges have to stop offering ones that don’t deliver on their promises?

—Scott Smallwood

+ Coverage of the report in the NYT earlier this month and in Paul Fain’s newsletter, The Job.

‘I’m Going To Have To Go’

When Jewél Jackson started covering higher ed in El Paso one of the first issues she heard about was this: A college degree often means a ticket out of town.

This week she wrote about the challenges that creates for the border region and the students of its public university, the University of Texas at El Paso.

Take Paulina del Pozo, a UTEP graduate with a degree in industrial engineering. She’s now working in Fort Worth, more than 600 miles away, where she estimates her starting salary was probably four times greater than it would have been in El Paso. 

“I started my job search three to four months before graduating and started going to the career fairs and that’s when I really noticed there weren’t that many local companies at the fairs and there weren’t that many opportunities here,” del Pozo told Jewél. “That’s when I was, ‘Wow, I’m going to have to go.’”

Here are some of the challenges El Paso faces in keeping its graduates, Jewél reported:

  • The average weekly wage in El Paso in 2020 was $823, about two-thirds of the national average.
  • El Paso wage growth has been more sluggish than the nation as a whole for more than a decade.
  • The number of jobs in Texas increased almost twice as fast as in El Paso over the past decade.

Over all, Jewél wrote, El Paso County saw 56,000 more people move out to other U.S. counties than moved in between 2010 and 2020, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The exodus of graduates hinders El Paso’s ability to grow economically, local officials said. And, Jewél wrote, having to leave is often a personal sacrifice, too

“This is where my family is,” del Pozo said. “I did want to come back home but there was nothing available for me.”

Back to School, Still Not So Normal

Kent State is among the colleges offering incentives for students to get vaccinated. There’s a laundry list of available prize offerings, including expensive headphones, Apple watches, and chances to win a semester of free tuition.

This hasn’t turned out to be the kind of “back to normal” start of the school year that many people had hoped — and planned — for. Our reporters across the country have been documenting colleges’ shifting plans and the impact of the Delta variant as we move into the fall.

In Mississippi, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of unvaccinated adults, there’s been confusion about what colleges can require and calls from faculty and students to mandate covid shots, Molly Minta reported for our partner Mississippi Today.

But as classes started at Mississippi public universities amid the worst wave yet of the pandemic in the state, a nearly two-hour meeting of the state’s higher ed board barely touched on the topic, Molly reported last week. 

The University of Mississippi’s chancellor, Glenn Boyce, for example, referenced the COVID-19 pandemic just once during his 11-minute-long update, Molly wrote: He told the trustees that he is working on getting the marching band fully vaccinated so they don’t miss any games this upcoming football season.

More coverage:

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Black tenured professors at the U. of Pittsburgh could all fit in a small classroom. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In Pittsburgh: Tenured positions in southwestern Pennsylvania are overwhelmingly white. As colleges and universities face demands to address racial inequities, there’s one stark gap at nearly every campus in the region.

In latitude(s): How higher education can aid Afghanistan. As the precipitous and tragic crisis in Afghanistan unfolds, students, scholars, and researchers are vulnerable.

In The Job: A promising model for helping community college students succeed. Just 40 percent of community college students earn an associate degree within six years. A Chicago-based program has significantly increased graduation rates.

In Northeast Ohio: How Ohio’s colleges are supporting students’ mental health. Many campuses now offer things like workshops, group sessions and mindfulness experiences, in addition to counseling sessions with licensed professionals.

In Mississippi: Veteran activists championing HBCU funding are ready to pass the torch. “This has to be a student-driven movement if it wants sustainability,” one civil-rights attorney said.

+ Sign up here for any, or all, of our newsletters — and read the latest issues.

Keep in Touch

Support our work. We’re grateful to our donors, who help us add thoughtful reporting on higher ed to communities across the country. Here’s where to give.

Got a story tip or a question? Please send it along.

Run a newsroom and want to improve your coverage of higher ed? Let’s talk.

Please share. Forward this newsletter to colleagues, family, and friends who might be interested. They can sign up for their own copy here.

Our Local Network locations: California | Cleveland | Colorado | El Paso | Mississippi | Pittsburgh | Santa Cruz

You May Also Like

Where education and jobs intersect

We started a new project back in June focused on covering the connections between education and work. It's a topic getting a lot of attention in public-policy circles but not one that's regularly covered on the ground. Here's what's struck us so far.

What does $4 billion get you?

The wealth gap between historically Black colleges and predominantly white ones is staggering. The top 10 richest universities have endowments totaling $200 billion. The 10 richest HBCUs? Just $2 billion. And the combined endowments for every single HBCU is just $3.9 billion.