The number and types of postsecondary credentials have grown exponentially in the last decade. That growth presents opportunities but also poses challenges to learners who are trying to map their education and connect it to employment opportunities. To achieve a positive return on their education investment, learners need to make enough money with their new credential to offset the debt they took on to complete it. This is especially true of short-term career and technical education (CTE) programs. Most students who enroll in these programs are the “new majority” who benefit from well-designed programs and enhanced support to help them overcome barriers and improve their pathways to economic mobility. They include students from low-income and underrepresented communities, as well as students not coming directly from high school, like student parents, adults juggling work and school, returning citizens, and others.
We use data from the College Scorecard to examine CTE programs overall and within six fields of study: health sciences, business and marketing, computer and information sciences, repair services, protective services, and personal and culinary services. We explore the program outcomes of debt, earnings, and “debt burden” (debt as a share of earnings). We examine how each outcome is shaped by program, institution, and labor market characteristics. We provide actionable knowledge for institutions, students, and employers on the returns to short-term CTE programs and the factors that explain improved outcomes for students.
Some key takeaways supported by the findings in this report include the following:
- Which credential learners pursue is important. The field of study strongly shaped the debt burden, mostly through its relationship to earnings.
- In the short term, students earning associate degrees appear to have higher debt burdens relative to certificates.
- Where students study matters, and generally, public institutions offer more value than private institutions.
- We find persistently higher debt burden for students in programs with higher percentages of women and people of color, although the size of these associations overall is modest.
- Students in programs with a higher share of women or in institutions with more adult learners (ages 25 and older) may have a higher debt burden after graduating.
- Higher institutional spending on instruction may generally boost earnings and reduce debt burden, although not for all CTE programs.
- Local labor markets matter when looking at debt burden, but they are less important than other factors, such as the field of study, level of credential, and type of institution.
- Program design may have a bigger potential role to play in some fields of study than others.
This report is part of the broader Workforce Alignment Study—funded by Ascendium Education Group—which seeks to understand how colleges and other educational institutions can design CTE programs to ensure students can get good jobs.