The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
March 28, 2018

Movin’ on up: Who gains from multiple postsecondary credentials?

March 26, 2018

Earning multiple postsecondary credentials to support career advancement is a key component of career pathways. But does earning multiple postsecondary credentials guarantee success in the labor market? The answer, as we found in our recent brief, is nuanced and highlights the need for more focus on career advancement.

“Career pathways” is a ubiquitous term in postsecondary education and training. It is embedded in some of our workforce legislation, such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and in many initiatives that help people with few or outdated job skills succeed in the labor market. Through career pathways, people complete manageable and progressively more advanced education and training with multiple exit and entry points to support working in their career of choice.

Using the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, we studied young adults who were in their early thirties by 2015 to understand career advancement among those who earn multiple credentials. In particular, we highlighted young adults who did not follow a “traditional” college path to earn a bachelor’s degree first and instead earned a subbaccalaureate credential first, such as a certificate or associate’s degree at a community college or other training provider.

Forty-four percent of students who first earn a subbaccalaureate credential earn more than one postsecondary credential. But some young adults have difficulty earning a second credential. Single parents and first-generation students are less likely to earn a second credential than other young adults.

Why the type of credential matters

The labor market value of earning multiple credentials varies based on the type of credential and field of study. Our analysis shows an initial jump in employment rates in the years immediately after earning the second credential, but those increases fade by the fifth year.

The story on earnings gains for a second credential is more nuanced. Earnings for a second credential follow the same trend as earnings for the first credential until the fifth year, when earnings for a second credential jump by a few thousand dollars. The biggest gains are from earning a bachelor’s degree as a second credential. Earning an associate’s degree as a second credential does not seem to help and may even hurt earnings trajectories for young adults.

Average Annual Earnings of Young Adults Employed in the Periods before and after Earning a First or Second Credential, by Credential Type

But there is also a small but observable gain for earning a certificate as a second credential. With certificates being key credentials in career pathway programs, this finding could be promising for supporting career advancement. Certificates typically take less time to complete (one year or less) than an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and could help young adults join the workforce more quickly.

Why policymakers and practitioners should boost career advancement efforts

These findings highlight the need for more focus on the “advancement” part of career pathways. State and local policymakers and practitioners who develop and implement career pathways initiatives should consider how they can support advancement for low-income, low-skill workers who have secured an entry-level job in an in-demand field and help move them into a middle-skill job.

Often, career pathway initiatives devote resources and funding to the early steps in a program that lead to an entry-level job. Policymakers and practitioners could encourage participation in higher levels of education and training by providing workers ongoing career guidance and offering access to supports such as child care.

Employers can also support their entry-level employees’ career advancement by collaborating with training providers such as community colleges to develop programs that improve employees’ skills and offer industry-recognized credentials.

Photo by Kelvin Murray/Getty Images.

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