The great aid gap

As Americans seek the training they need to compete in today's work environment, certificates are becoming an increasingly popular and necessary postsecondary credential. But paying for them can be a challenge, as federal assistance flows overwhelm

Steven Greenhouse / New York Times News Service /

Published Mar 24, 2013 at 05:00AM

It was an unusually enthusiastic shoutout for the job certificate programs offered by many community colleges. A report found that men with nondegree certificates in computer/information services earned $72,498 a year on average — more money than 72 percent of men with two-year associate degrees and more than 54 percent of men with four-year bachelor’s degrees.

That study, completed this past June by work force experts at Georgetown University, also found that women with such certificates earned more money than 75 percent of women with associate degrees and 64 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees.

Certificates are the fastest-growing form of postsecondary credential, the Georgetown study said, prized by employers for equipping workers with skills in high demand. Last year, the nation’s colleges awarded 1 million such certificates — more than triple the 300,000 awarded in 1994 and more than one-fifth of all postsecondary credentials awarded last year.

But as certificates grow in number and importance, many educators are calling attention to what they see as an overlooked problem in the nation’s efforts to upgrade workers’ skills and deal with soaring higher-education costs: Federal financial aid goes overwhelmingly to students in traditional degree programs, while very little goes to the many students in noncredit certificate programs who may need it more.

As many employers complain of difficulty finding applicants with the proper skills, many educators and economists say the government should make it easier for students to take certificate programs.

“There’s an estimated 80 million people out there in the workforce who could benefit from coming back and gaining some form of postsecondary credential,” said James Applegate, vice president for program development at the Lumina Foundation. “A lot of them are interested in workforce-aligned credentials.”

Students and educators alike say the unavailability of financial aid prevents many from even entering these programs, which not only bolster students’ employability but, economists say, the United States’ overall competitiveness. Federal financial aid, like Pell grants, is not available to students who take noncredit courses, and many certificate programs, whether to be a certified nurse’s aide or to fix air conditioners and heating systems, are not for credit.

Suri Duitch, dean of continuing education at the City University of New York, said federal programs often treated certificate students like second-class citizens. “These programs are less expensive than the degree programs at many four-year schools, but this student population generally has fewer resources,” said Duitch, whose university has more than 220,000 students in nondegree programs. “It’s not hard to find examples of people who had to drop out of such certificate programs for financial reasons.”

A viable option

The Georgetown study, “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees,” found that many students who obtain nondegree certificates do go on to obtain degrees: 20 percent of certificate holders get an associate degree and 13 percent obtain a bachelor’s degree.

Of course, not all certificate holders earn as much as those with the exalted computer/information services certificates, the study noted. Nonetheless, those who have obtained certificates earn more on average than 24 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees. And those with certificates earn 20 percent more on average than someone with just a high school degree, which translates into $240,000 in earnings over a lifetime.

Employer expectations

Students pursue certificate programs for several reasons. The unemployment rate remains high, and many see such certificates as a way to upgrade skills and get hired.

At the same time, many employers are cutting back on the training they provide to workers, including new hires.

A manufacturer that might have devoted weeks to training a new employee to operate elaborate metal-cutting machinery now often insists that job applicants obtain certification on such machines before even applying. Some cities whose police and fire academies once had programs to train rookies now expect job applicants to attend outside schools and pay for it themselves.

“This means the employee is accepting the cost of the training before even getting considered for hiring,” said Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College in Michigan. Jacobs said that credit and noncredit courses and programs were often similar and that qualifying only degree-seeking students for federal Pell grants and federal loans often seemed arbitrary.

The presidents of several colleges said the lack of financial aid for certificate students hurts more than just those students. Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, said the lack of aid made it hard for her college to attract and train all the students the city needs to do coding for Manhattan’s Silicon Alley or to work in its “green waste management program.”

Mellow said the federal Pell grant program, created in 1972, was built for a different time — structured to promote economic mobility by enabling less well-off students to attend four-year colleges. She said it was established “when students tended to go to school full time and were basically being supported by their family. So they didn’t hold jobs. They didn’t have family responsibilities. But the world has changed dramatically since then.”

Economic impact

Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and the chief author of its study on certificates, questioned whether it was the best use of federal money to give Pell grants to students at four-year colleges who pursue majors in fields like philosophy, with little economic payoff in employment and earnings. Why not, he asked, provide aid to students who take noncredit certificate courses that often translate quickly into jobs and higher pay?

“If you want to take four years of Shakespeare, that’s up to you,” he said. “Is that what the public sector should support? The bottom line is, given the budget situation, I’d say we need to shift things in another direction.”

Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, took issue with Carnevale.

“We know that people who get bachelor’s degrees in philosophy are getting an education that will ground them in all kinds of things,” she said. “That might not help them the day after graduation, but it will help long term.”

Taking action

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation are financing a panel, set up by the College Board, to recommend changes to the Pell grant program. The report is due next month.

Jacobs of Macomb Community College is on the panel, and he is eager to see Pell grants geared increasingly to help the many adults who lost their jobs or were otherwise dislocated and were trying to get skills to land new jobs. And he said an expanded Pell program should provide guidance services to certificate students who return to college after not having been to school in years.

Baum, the panel chairwoman, voiced concern that an expansion of Pell to noncredit courses could be too broad.

“A lot of people take courses for self-enrichment and recreational stuff,” she said. “What happens if someone takes a basket-weaving course? There is no clear reason we would want to provide financial aid for that.”

Among those struggling because they are not able to get financial aid is Justo Amastal, who is studying for an A+ Computer Service Technician Certificate Program at LaGuardia Community College. The six-month program costs $2,470.

Amastal, 36, had been earning about $15,000 a year working at restaurants and delis, but he was told he could make $40,000 to $60,000 with the computer tech certificate. Going to school has made it hard for him to support himself and his son. “I don’t really have time to work,” he said. “I need the time to study.”

A close friend is lending him money for living expenses and the course’s tuition. Despite the deprivation, he is sure the effort is worth it.

“If you don’t have skills, it’s really hard to find a good job,” he said.

The shift — At a time when so many college graduates are unemployed and forecasts show that 18 of the nation’s 20 fastest-growing occupations will not require bachelor’s degrees (home health aides, for example), some experts, like the scholar Charles Murray, are arguing that many young Americans should consider a different path. It may make more economic sense to obtain a certificate than to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars studying for a bachelor’s degree.

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