Movement, But Miles to Go

American colleges have ratcheted up the number of sub-baccalaureate degrees they award — but not nearly enough to approach the aggressive college completion goals that President Obama and others have set for the country.

The Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics published a report Wednesday that zeroes in on associate degrees, certificates and other credentials below the bachelor’s degree — credentials that often get short shrift in discussions of higher education policy, but that are increasingly seen as crucial to the country’s ability to produce not only a skilled work force, but an educated citizenry.

Countries such as Canada, for instance, have raced past the United States in (sometimes criticized) international rankings of postsecondary attainment in large part because they’ve successfully drawn significant numbers of their citizens into sub-baccalaureate programs. President Obama has set a goal of having the country back atop the college attainment rankings by 2020.

The newly released data suggest that, taking a long view, more Americans are entering and emerging from such programs. As seen in the table below, the number of degrees and certificates awarded by colleges and universities that award federal financial aid rose only modestly (by 2.7 percent) from 1997 to 2002, but then jumped sharply, by 25 percent, from 2002 to 2007. The overall rate of increase over the course of the decade, 28.4 percent, was slightly less than the rate of increase for bachelor’s degrees, which grew by 11 percent from 1997 to 2002 and 18 percent from 2002 to 2007.

Several other things stand out about the data on subbaccalaureate credentials:
Women and members of minority groups have long been disproportionately represented among recipients of subbaccalaureate credentials, and their proportions of the totals have been increasing. Women received 62.2 percent of all such credentials awarded in 2007, up from 60.8 percent in 1997, and non-whites made up 41.4 percent of all subbaccalaureate recipients in 2007, far greater than their representation among bachelor’s degree recipients.

Nearly a third of all subbaccalaureate credentials in 2007 were awarded in health care fields, with slightly less than a quarter in non-science academic fields (such as liberal arts and family sciences), 12 percent in business, 10.6 percent in manufacturing or construction fields, and 8.6 percent in scientific fields.

Public two-year colleges conferred a solid majority (57.8 percent) of the subbaccalaureate credentials and 69 percent of the associate degrees in 2007. But by far the fastest growth in the number of such credentials awarded was among for-profit colleges, which in 2007 awarded 37 percent of the short-term certificates, 47 percent of the moderate-term certificates, and 46 percent of the long-term certificates.

Tom Weko, associate commissioner of NCES’s postsecondary division, said in an interview that the data — which the department has never presented in quite this form before — were important in understanding a relatively underexplored segment of the higher education market. "This is where a huge share of American postsecondary education is, and we need to devote appropriate attention to it, given the magnitude of what’s happening here and the importance of it to further education and to the labor market," Weko said.

Jacqueline E. King, assistant vice president of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis, said that "rapid" rise in certificates and associate degrees from 2002 to 2007 was noteworthy, given recent analyses by labor economists showing that 45 percent of jobs over the next 5-10 years will be in the "middle skill" positions that require these sorts of subbaccalaureate credentials.

While the NCES data cover only colleges that offer financial aid, higher education officials and policy makers are grappling to understand the full range of providers of such credentials — which can include not only company-offered training but also organizations like the American National Standards Institute that certify personnel skills, King said.

"When you realize that there’s a lot more out there in this murky world of subbaccalaureate education and training that we don’t really have the means to account for," the data provided by NCES don’t look bad, King said.

Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, sees the numbers a bit differently. While the rate of increase in the awarding of subbaccalaureate credentials is improving, he said, it’s growing much faster in other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that are already ahead of the U.S. in subbaccalaureate production. "The rates of increase in other OECD countries tend to be at least 10 percentage points higher, and in some cases 5 to 6 times higher because they’re starting lower," Carnevale said.

In addition, the NCES data probably overstate the number of people getting education and training in the U.S. because of "double counting," he said. "Almost 17 percent of people with B.A.s have earned certificates, too, and people are getting multiple certificates, with the phenomenon of ‘stacking,’ " particularly in health care fields.

"So ’28’ sounds great, but it’s not a stellar number," he said. Right now the U.S. is situated eighth in subbaccalaureate attainment, and at the rates evidenced in the NCES study, said Carnevale, "these numbers aren’t going to move that an inch" toward President Obama’s goal.


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