In today’s economy nearly all jobs require some form of a credential beyond high school. However, many small businesses find it difficult to find qualified job applicants to fill job openings, particularly those entry to middle skill level jobs that require specific technical skills. These skills are often able to be acquired through a short-term degree program designed in partnership with business and industry standards and expectations. Accordingly, the demand for entry to middle level skills is strong. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that 53 percent of the US labor market was entry level skill jobs, yet only 43 percent of the country’s workers possessed the necessary skills.
Thus, short-term degrees and industry-based certifications are increasingly important for individuals who want to advance in the workplace and achieve greater economic mobility. The attainment of a credential demonstrates the mastery of the knowledge, skills, and abilities desired by employers, putting learners on a path towards gainful employment. One recent study shows that certification holders earn 30 percent more than individuals with a high school diploma alone and the wage premium for short-term degree programs is often comparable or higher than bachelor’s degrees in certain fields.
Since the early 2000s, community colleges have been stacking certificates to create career pathways. The short-term degrees embedded into career pathways make up 24 percent of all postsecondary awards in the US today. In the 2014-15 academic year, more than 600,000 short-term degrees were conferred—a 63 percent increase from the 370,000 degrees granted during the 2004-05 academic year. Short-term degrees along with certifications have become so popular that they are now the second most common higher education credential in the United States, signaling that students and employers are recognizing the value of this educational route at an increasing rate.
Nonetheless, short-term degrees only have value if they are a) designed to respond to local labor market needs, and b) designed to ensure long-term success through continuing learning opportunities. When these programs are developed utilizing labor market data and employer engagement in the design, it leaves students with a credential that has high meaning in the local economy. Therefore, short-term degree programs must be thoughtfully designed if they are to improve a student’s employment opportunities.
Labor markets are not static. Rapidly changing technologies and skills are compelling workers to return to school and upgrade their skills just to retain their current jobs. Colleges that offer short-term degrees are able to move and adapt to those changes rapidly in order to meet the needs of the local employers. Providing the local economy a highly trained workforce that is able to fill the needs of changing industries is a key benefit to short-term degrees. Students are looking for ways to improve their economic status in the fastest way possible with as little debt as possible. Short-term degrees are filling that need for the new age of student demographics.