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Technological advances and globalization are benefiting the economy at large. But along the way, many working-class Americans have experienced declines in position and prospects. Many jobs available to working-class adults in the past have disappeared, and the new and growing sectors and occupations seem to require more skills and education than before.1
For decades society has regarded a bachelor’s degree from a traditional higher education institution as one of the surest paths to prosperity.2 But a bachelor’s degree program at a traditional college is not always the best option for everyone, nor is it the only avenue for people to receive training and skills that will pay off in the job market.3 After years of policymakers and advocates advancing a broad “college for all” agenda, many Americans are questioning this sweeping and singular approach to human capital development.4 Even so, it remains unclear what other viable education and training alternatives exist to build necessary skills and secure employment.
A broad spectrum of researchers and policy thinkers have argued for expanding alternatives to the traditional postsecondary system. Economist Harry Holzer argues that society must “offer students a wider range of high-quality pathways into the labor market besides just [associate of arts] or [bachelor’s of arts] programs by expanding effective career and technical education and apprenticeships.”5 Similarly, Andrew Kelly recommends that policymakers must “look beyond higher education as traditionally conceived—the two- or four-year degree-granting college—and create space for new options that can provide additional pathways to the middle class.”6
These experts have in mind programs that offer components of a traditional degree program but that are shorter, more affordable, more skills- or work-intensive, and highly responsive to both trainees’ and employers’ needs. Their recommendations appear to be gaining traction on Capitol Hill, as evidenced by recent legislative proposals to expand federal funding for short-term training programs.7
A high school degree no longer guarantees working-class adults sure footing in the labor market.8 But a four-year college experience may seem too long, costly, or risky. If not a bachelor’s degree program, then what other options can help working-class Americans get a leg up?
Community colleges offer two-year associate degree programs in technical and occupational fields that are associated with substantial earnings for graduates.9 Less familiar, though, are the nondegree credentials and work-based learning experiences currently offered by community colleges, trade schools, private providers, four-year colleges, employers, and industry associations. These options include postsecondary certificates, industry certifications, professional licenses, work-experience programs, and apprenticeships. Individuals often earn these credentials in concert (e.g., a certificate program that includes work experience and leads to licensure).
Nondegree credentialing and training has existed for many years.10 Reasons for pursuing nondegree education vary, from wanting to pick up in-demand skills, meet a job requirement, or get a pay raise to exploring a new occupational area or engaging in lifelong learning.11 Having a nondegree credential is not unusual, either; one 2014 analysis by the US Census Bureau found that a quarter of all adults have a postsecondary certificate, industry certification, or professional license.12 Until recently, however, nationally representative information on nondegree credentials and training opportunities was sparse, a result of the federal government’s long-standing focus on traditional educational sectors and degrees.13
This report—commissioned by the Opportunity America–AEI–Brookings Institution Working Class Study Group—explores new data from the US Department of Education’s 2016 Adult Training and Education Survey (ATES) on nondegree credentials and work-experience programs for American adults. The report describes the prevalence and characteristics of nondegree education for the working class and the adult population at large. It explores questions such as: How widespread is nondegree education? Do adults complete nondegree credentials instead of or in addition to college degrees? What occupational fields are most common for these credentials? Do completers view their credentials as useful for getting a job or increasing skills and pay?
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