Can Certificates Generate Higher Income than Associate or Bachelor’s Degrees?

As a general rule, each level of education leads to higher income. For example, high school graduates earn more than those who didn’t finish. Associate degree holders earn more than those with a high school diploma. Bachelor’s degree holders earn more than those with an associate degree. But in some instances, people who earn certificates […]

BY Terri Williams

Can Certificates Generate Higher Income than Associate or Bachelor’s Degrees?

As a general rule, each level of education leads to higher income. For example, high school graduates earn more than those who didn’t finish. Associate degree holders earn more than those with a high school diploma. Bachelor’s degree holders earn more than those with an associate degree. But in some instances, people who earn certificates earn more money than those who hold associate or bachelor’s degrees.

According to data from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and to information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following are examples of certificates that pay well:

  • Men with certificates in computer/information services earn $72,498 per year, which is more than 72 percent of men with an associate degree and 54 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees.
  • Women with certificates in computer/information services and in a related occupation earn $56,664, which is greater than 75 percent of females with an associate degree and 64 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Men with certificates in electronics earn $64,700, more than 65% of men with associate degrees and 48 percent of men with a bachelor’s degree.
  • Women with certificates in business/office work earn $38,204, which is more than 54 percent of women with associate degrees and 41 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees.

To put this in perspective, GoodCall analyzed salary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to provide a few examples of the median wages of certificate holders, and also examples of jobs requiring an associate or bachelor’s degree that don’t pay as much.

Jobs and Median Annual Wages for Certificate Holders Jobs Requiring Associate and Bachelor’s Degrees that Pay Less
Auto damage appraisers $64,020 Historians
Middle and high school teachers
Wildlife biologists
Telecommunications equipment installers and repairers $54,570 Survey researchers (with a master’s)
Elementary school teachers,
Tax examiners
Court reporters $49,500 Graphic designers
Exercise physiologists
Interior designers
Firefighters $46,870 Meeting/convention/event planners
Social workers
Heating and air conditioning mechanics $45,110 Chemical technicians
Surgical technologists $44,330 Environmental science and protection techs
Mental health counselors
Interpreters and translators
Broadcast and sound engineering technicians $41,780 Biological techs
Substance abuse counselors
Rehab counselors (with a master’s)


However, not all certificates are created equally:

  • The median certificate holder in aviation makes nearly $65,642, nearly four times the $17,600 earned by the median certificate holder in food service (the lowest-paid field).

But overall, it would appear that pursuing a certificate can often lead to a better-paying job, and the short duration in school results in little-to-no-student loan debt.

Why aren’t more students pursuing certificates?

The salary comparisons above may seem shocking, but Brad Hershbein, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, tells GoodCall that students who pursue a certificate or a degree are making an investment and there may be fluctuations in the return on that investment.

Typically, more education equates to more money, but Hershbein says this is not always the case. “The field of study can matter more than the degree: Someone with a certificate in applied engineering can often earn more money than someone with a master’s degree is counseling,” Hershbein explains.

So why don’t more students choose the certificate option since it is a much cheaper and faster career route? Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (and one of the study’s authors) believes there is a stigma associated with certificates – and with any option besides a bachelor’s degree (or higher).

Carnevale says the stigma goes back to the vocational model of the 1970s and possibly before then. “Vocational education fell out of favor with American families because it was merely a cover for a less rigorous pathway into which students with low grades and test scores were tracked.”

But Carnevale says that’s no longer the case. “The vocational education model has been replaced by an academically rigorous career and technical education model that includes programs of study that connect what students learn in high school to certificate and associate degree programs at community colleges and puts students on a career pathway.”

With the data confirming the value of a certificate, Carnevale says the stigma is no longer justified.

Mary Alice McCarthy, PhD, the director of the Center on Education and Skills at New America, has similar sentiments. “There is still a stigma around vocational education – and most certificate programs are vocational in nature.” However, McCarthy finds it ironic that there’s a stigma attached to certificates below the bachelor’s degree level, while post-graduate certificate programs are all the rage, “Post-graduate certificate programs – which are also skills-focused and therefore vocational in nature, are increasingly popular; for some reason, we view skills-focused education very differently when it is delivered to students who don’t yet have a B.A.,” McCarthy says.

At the same time, Hershbein points out that many students are pursuing certificates at the undergraduate level. In fact he says that in 2013-2014, almost equal numbers of certificates and degrees were awarded. “Many of these students pursuing and earning certificates are non-traditional students in the sense that they are not coming straight from – or even recently from – high school but have been working for several years and often work while earning the certificate.”

But Hershbein thinks that ignorance may best explain why more students aren’t pursuing certificates. “Too often, high schools do not have sufficient resources to offer tailored advice on career and postsecondary options to their students.” He says students are getting advice from their peers and university advertisements.

The importance of objective information

Our three experts agree that providing information is the key to getting more students to at least consider pursuing certificates. But they also concur that there’s a difference between providing objective information and trying to push student onto this – or any – educational path.

“Convincing students is a tall order but begins with parents, teachers, and counselors; we need to empower these influencers by giving them consumer information about the value of different kinds of college programs as the Department of Education has piloted with its College Scorecard,” Carnevale says.

He also advocates exposing high school students to various career fields and providing them with opportunities to experiment.

McCarthy agrees that high school students should be given information about various careers – and that includes earnings information for certificate programs. However, instead of a broad overview, she believes it would be more helpful to provide up-to-date specific info regarding programs and schools. “Second, we need to ensure that those certificates can connect to additional education and career advancement possibilities – that they are not dead ends.”

But McCarthy believes it’s also important to ensure that those jobs would be fulfilling and rewarding. “Earnings are important, but they are not the only thing that makes someone a good job – so do the working conditions, advancement possibilities, etcetera.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Hershbein, who also stresses the importance of students choosing the best individual educational option. “Even if individuals with certificates in automotive engineering tend to earn a decent amount, we shouldn’t push more people to get these certificates if they won’t enjoy the work or aren’t mechanically inclined.”

Hershbein recommends a more holistic approach. “The growth of programs like early and middle college, career academies, P-TECH, and more suggest that integrated approaches that expose high schoolers to job opportunities, the education necessary for those opportunities (e.g., a certificate in welding), and the college courses at little cost while still in high school can make for successful policy.”