There is much discussion in the education and workforce spaces about opportunities for post-high school pathways. That conversation is being further fueled by the wide disparities spotlighted by the current pandemic and civil unrest.

According to Lumina Foundation, “The need for universal post-high school education is rooted in the global shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy. The vast majority of jobs being created require education beyond high school, and that trend shows no sign of abating.”

WorkingNation sat in on Lumina’s recent webinarA Stronger Nation: Counting Short-Term, Industry Certificationsto hear the experts explain the need for more recognized post-high school options.

2025 Attainment Goal

Lumina’s A Stronger Nation effort has been tracking the attainment of post-high school education since 2008. The national post-high school educational attainment rate stands at 51.3 percent—for adults between the ages of 25 and 64 years. This is about a 10 percent increase since 2008, but Lumina notes much needs to be done to reach its goal attainment rate of 60 percent by 2025.

Courtney Brown, Ph.D. is vice president of strategic impact at Lumina. She says it’s never been more important for “more of our citizens, especially people of color, and those who have been left behind— to have more education after high school to be able to take part in our economy.”

A Stronger Nation collects national data on the number of attained degrees, and now includes short-term credentials like industry-recognized certifications. Brown says, “In recent years, credentials other than degrees, specifically certificates and certifications, have become more popular. They’re able to better reflect learning and skills.”

She notes, “We now have a solid data source in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The current population survey has included a question regarding the attainment of certifications. The data are available at the state level and include income to give us better data on labor market outcomes.”

Brown says quality short-term credentials “have a key role in helping millions of Americans get a leg up in the kind of learning they need today. Certificates are awarded by postsecondary institutions—most often community colleges—and many have significant value in the job market.”

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Certifications Can Get People Back to Work

Jeff Strohl, Ph.D. is the director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. He says the latest overview from A Stronger Nation is timely.

“As we’ve entered into this ‘pancession’ or pandemic recession, however you want to call it, I really believe that certifications are going to become very core to some of our reskilling and re-employment efforts because of their very nature of providing the employee with a very defined set of skills, and the employer with validation that people have qualifying skills needed for the job.”

Brown says, “We have strong evidence that certifications lead to employment. We know that people with certifications and no other post-secondary credential are more likely to be employed than those without them. We know that they make higher salaries, are more likely to be promoted, and have greater job satisfaction than those without.”

“A recent Gallup poll shows that 49 percent of U.S. workers with a high school education and a professional certification but no other postsecondary education are most likely to be in a good job. That was even higher than the 42 percent among those with bachelor’s degrees.”

The Postsecondary Hierarchy is Changing

Strohl cautions, “It would be a mistake thinking of a certification as a standalone item.” Students seeking an associate or undergraduate degree may also add certification training to their coursework. He adds, “We missed the fact that many people have certifications in hand with other degrees.”

Strohl says, “We’ve had this movement of embedded certifications happening around the nation. We know that much of the training for certifications happens on the college campuses.”

Strohl says, “I do believe that certifications are breaking down our old linear model of postsecondary education. And in many ways, they’re combining with other degrees and adding value across the entire spectrum of degrees from high school dropout all the way to Ph.D.s. I wouldn’t look at it as in a hierarchy anymore. I would look at it as certifications playing a magnifying effect or a refreshing effect, in particular, for dislocated workers. I think this has become really important when we talk about re-employment when recovery starts.

Both Strohl and Brown acknowledge that credentials are not a one-size-fits-all. Brown says, “We understand there will be questions regarding quality. Quality is an issue with all credentials. Things change quickly. And as a result, some credentials have a greater shelf life than others. For those with shorter shelf lives, we need to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to continue to upscale and rescale. Many certifying bodies keep up-to-date with their content and qualifications for certification and re-certification to ensure the skills and knowledge are what are needed for current and future jobs.”

Calls to Action for Equity and Inclusion

Strohl notes that the pathway to a B.A. should not be an inequity problem going forward, but acknowledges the issues. “I believe that so many people are going to have one thing on their mind for a very big reason, which is getting a job and that the quicker that they can get a job, the more important it is going to be. We can split the unemployed and the dislocated into three groups—those who will immediately get their jobs back, those who need short-term training, and those who need medium- and long-term training. We really have to think about how certifications fall into that.”

“We really need to be conscious of the equity issue because history tells us that we track. So families that are going to be able to sit back and afford to have their children go on to a Ph.D. or Master’s or a B.A. will probably do so—try to wait things out. But not everybody can do that. We’re going to have the uncomfortable problem of potentially tracking people in the short-term degrees and the need to get a job. We need to find the balance with that because it is a good way to get work, but we want to guarantee pathways to the B.A. along the way.”

Brown looks to the evolving credentials landscape and the options that are available to learners. “These are promising signs of progress, and we’re excited to count high quality certifications toward the attainment goal, but there’s not a moment to lose. We must use this wealth of new data, every tool in our arsenal to help people.”

“We must make achieving fair and just outcomes for people of color, the mission of everyone involved with post-high school education.The attainment goal is based on the reality that our country faces social and economic opportunities that can best be addressed by educating more people beyond high school, especially Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.”

“We must continue to focus on approaches and make all education beyond high school, more accessible and affordable. And that those credentials are meaningful, high quality, and enable individuals to contribute to the workforce, improve society, and provide for themselves and their families.”

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