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Certificates, Bootcamps And Digital Badges Offer An Alternative To Degrees. But Are They Worth It?

Illustration of a maze with a woman standing at the start looking out at lots of arrows pointing in different directions, and a "You're Hired!" sign at the exit.
Navigating the vast array of short-term training programs can be daunting for students and job-seekers.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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Perhaps you're among the more than one million Californians who lost a job during the pandemic and haven't yet gotten a new one.

Certificates, Bootcamps And Digital Badges Offer An Alternative To Degrees. But Are They Worth It?

Or maybe you quit your job. Because you hated it. And now you're thinking about a new career.

In both cases, lots of folks are looking for quick, non-traditional ways to get back into the workforce quickly, or to get a better job with a better salary. Recent surveys of U.S. adults found much more interest in non-degree skills training, like online boot camps and certifications, than in traditional associate and Bachelor's degrees.

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But the options can be overwhelming. There are more than 650,000 different kinds of short-term credentials awarded across the U.S., according to data from the nonprofit Credential Engine. These include certificate programs, boot camps, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and digital badges.

But the value and quality of short-term credential programs (generally, under a year) vary from totally-worth-the-investment to, some might say, total-waste-of-money. And it's often hard for students and job-seekers to figure out whether and how much a given program will pay off.

It's the wild, wild west.
— Su Jin Jez, executive director of California Competes

"It's incredibly difficult to navigate. There's no single source of good information," said Su Jin Jez, executive director of California Competes, a higher education and workforce policy research group. "It's the wild, wild west."

So before you saddle up, here's what you need to know about short-term credentials.

Cost, Quality And Employment Outcomes Vary Dramatically

Many education leaders recognize the importance of short-term credential programs, especially for working-age adults who may not have the time, money or desire to invest in a four-year (or more) degree program. But many also have serious questions about their outcomes, and who gets access to what kind of training.

A recent study of short-term training programs in Washington State found that graduates of such programs got jobs that paid, on average, more than the minimum wage but not enough to support a family.

Researchers found wide differences in value among short-term training programs:

Lowest earners: Those who completed programs in web design or early childhood education, or trained to become a nursing assistant or aide.

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Highest earners: Those who completed programs in computer and information systems security, followed by those who trained to be a truck or bus driver, or studied business administration.

Industry-Designed Programs

Industries that have developed their own training programs tailored to their specific needs tend to have high value, especially in the IT field, said Nate Anderson, a senior director at Jobs For the Future, an education and workforce development think tank.

Coding boot camps, which are intensive training courses offered by private companies and some public colleges and universities, have proliferated because of high demand for qualified IT workers, Anderson said.

But they come in a wide variety of price, length and quality control. Recently, one online boot camp with Silicon Valley roots has found itself under scrutiny for allegedly inflating its job placement numbers, among other problems.

Another potential drawback of some boot camps, Anderson said: "People struggle to land employment, in general, through boot camps because they don't have much work experience."

The bodies of two people shaking hands, one with an oversized bag with stickers of credentials all over it; a large sun makes up the backdrop.
Job prospects, starting wages and potential for advancement are all key criteria to consider when looking at short-term credential programs.
(Alborz Kamalizad
for LAist)

How To Assess The Value Of A Short-Term Program

Currently, in the world of short-term credentials, there is no equivalent of a travel booking website that would allow students and job-seekers to easily compare key aspects like price, length of study, and job and salary outcomes.

There are a number of sites that allow you to compare colleges and college programs, including certificate tracks, but data on job placements and salary are often missing, as are data on programs offered by most non-college education providers.

In the meantime, experts offered this advice:

  • Ask what specific skills are taught in the program.
  • Inquire whether the provider is accredited by an official body, like the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or, in the case of an industry certification, whether it's recognized by the industry in question.
  • Inquire about a program's outcomes: What percentage of students complete? How many get jobs? What jobs do they actually get? What's their average starting salary?
  • Ask whether the credential you're exploring will count toward a degree, and whether it's transferable, for example, to another college.
  • Research the job outlook and salary in your area. (California's Employment Development Department has a tool that lets you search this information by community college educational program).
  • Talk to employers about what they're looking for in candidates, and to people with the job you want about how they got there. (Those connections, later on, can be "as important, if not more important, than your credential," Anderson says.)

Are You Sure You Want To Pay That Much?

Once you have a good grasp on the job and salary outlook of a career you're eyeing, compare that to the cost of the program. Also:

  • Ask what kind of financial aid and other support is available to students.
  • Look for programs that include on-the-job training and/or help connecting with internships or apprenticeships.
  • Look for free and low-cost training programs - they do exist! Here are three providers: Generation USA, Per Scholas, and Futuro Health.
  • Your local job center should also be able to point you toward free and low-cost programs. The state employment office has also set up a special website with resources for workers who lost their job during the pandemic.

Thanks to an influx of pandemic recovery dollars for job training from the state and federal government, Anderson said out-of-work adults and lower-income students, "should qualify for all kinds of assistance to get into these programs. They should be very low cost."

He added: "If someone's offering you an expensive program and then saying that you'll make enough to pay it back at the other end, that's a huge red flag. There's very few programs out there that can guarantee that you're going to make the kind of money that allows you to pay back significant loans, especially entry-level jobs that require short-term credentials to land them."

If someone's offering you an expensive program and then saying that you'll make enough to pay it back at the other end, that's a huge red flag
— Nate Anderson, Senior Director, Jobs for the Future

Help Navigating Short-Term Credentials? It Could Be On The Way

If all this advice on evaluating short-term credentials makes you want to give up and stick to the couch, or to your current, if unsatisfying, job, know that help could be coming.

The organization UNITE-LA is working with Credential Engine to collect as much data as possible about credentials in Southern California, and to get it into a database that app developers can use to help guide students and job seekers.

"We have to equip these counselors, case managers, or parents, or whoever is guiding students with this information," said Heddy Nam, senior director of workforce development for UNITE-LA.

Ultimately, she said, she'd love to see a tool developed that would allow students and job-seekers to easily compare options, and see how a certain training or credential fits into their long-term goals. Maybe something like Google maps for your career path, she said, where "you could see all of the different routes" with their separate ETAs and costs.

Who Benefits From Short-Term Credentials?

Most short-term credentials aren't as valuable in the working world as having an associate or Bachelor's degree. People with AAs and BAs tend to earn more over a longer period of time, on average, than people with shorter-term credentials, researchers have found.

These longer-term degrees also tend to give graduates more flexible career options, and general skills such as writing and critical thinking that employers value, according to a recent study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

The payoff disparities between short-term training and degree programs trouble some equity-minded education leaders, like Jez, because research shows that African-American and Latinx students are more likely to enroll in short-term programs with a lesser payoff, while white and Asian students are more likely to do longer-term degree programs with a higher payoff.

Jez said:

"If I were to think about California's economic recovery and an inclusive recovery, I would not be all-in on short-term credentials."

Instead, she supports reforming financial aid to help more students get college degrees. Currently, a bill in the state legislature would expand aid for community college students and make it easier for working-age adults to get aid. Members of Congress also recently introduced a bill that would double the amount of financial aid awarded to low-income students, and allow DREAMers to apply.

Meanwhile, a proposal to allow students to use federal Pell Grants for training programs as short as eight weeks has, thus far, failed to get Congressional approval.