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A Student’s Guide to Online Non-Degree Credentials: Are They Worth It?

“The beauty of certifications is that they’re very specific about competencies. That’s not true for a lot of degrees. Degrees are there to cultivate your thinking and understanding, but many of them are not intended to train you to do a specific job.”

Dr. Stephen Crawford, Economic Sociologist and Research Professor at the George Washington University Institute for Public Policy (GWIPP)

For many families, a college degree has been the logical next step after graduating from high school. However, tuition at private four-year institutions has risen a staggering 41.2 percent from 2010 to 2020, leaving many wondering whether pursuing a college degree is worth it. But if not college, then what?

Non-degree credentials can be an option for many who don’t have the resources or inclination to complete a college degree. They can take on many forms, including certificates, certifications, badges, professional licensing, or even an apprenticeship.

The National Skills Coalition believes these credentials can be helpful for many members of the workforce. “[They are] a key component of state economic development and credential attainment goals, helping workers obtain better jobs and serving to reconnect them to further postsecondary education and training opportunities,” they share on their website.

Many of the 967,734 unique non-degree credentials offered in the United States can easily be earned online. Online options include everything from a CISCO IT certification to a human resources certificate from Southern New Hampshire University. However, not all non-degree credentials are created equal, so candidates should evaluate their suitability prior to investing time and money into one.

A 2019 report completed through funding from the Lumina Foundation and coordinated by DVP-Praxis Ltd. found that more than half of Americans aged 25 to 64 do not hold a postsecondary credential of any kind. The study further found that not holding a credential can significantly hinder a worker’s earning ability over time.

Other findings included that non-degree credential-holders were more likely to be employed than those with no credential or college, even credentials that take less than six months to earn can have a significant impact. Further, non-degree credential holders, in general, earned more than those who had no credentialing.

Continue reading to learn if online non-degree credentials are worth it from one of the foremost experts in this field.

Meet the Expert: Stephen Crawford, PhD

Stephen Crawford

Dr. Stephen Crawford is an economic sociologist and research professor at the George Washington University Institute for Public Policy (GWIPP). He is also the co-director of GWIPP’s Program on Skills, Credentials, and Workforce Policy and former director of the Lumina-funded Non-degree Credentials Research Network.

Presently, his research focuses on postsecondary education and training, alternative credentials, and the functioning of the labor market. Dr. Crawford holds a bachelor’s from Cornell University, a master’s degree from the Wharton Business School, and a PhD from Columbia University.

Non-Degree Credential Definition

A non-degree credential may seem pretty straightforward, but the truth is there is very little regulation or agreement on a definition: “Other than that non-degree credentials are workplace credentials that are not college degrees, there’s no formal consensus about which ones to include in this category,” shares Dr. Crawford.

“We usually include certificates, which tend to be given by academic institutions. However lots of places issue certificates for just attending a weekend conference on some special topic. There are certifications and licenses, which are attestations that you have met certain qualifications. In the case of a certification, you must pass a third-party exam and the certification expires after a certain amount of time. Then, there are badges, nano-degrees, micro-degrees, and nano-credentials. In general, they tend to be smaller and take less time. Some people would include apprenticeships,” Dr. Crawford elaborates.

Many non-degree certifications can be earned online through self-study or from work experience. “We see Google, Microsoft, and other big tech firms now offering these online, some of them for free even. With Covid-19, they’ve done more and more of the testing virtually. The testing involves demonstrating that you know how to apply those skills. It’s not just multiple-choice tests or essay questions,” shares Dr. Crawford.

Best Types of Non-Degree Credentials

Not all online non-degree credentials are created equal, according to Dr. Crawford. For him, one type of credential stands above the rest: “Certifications are outstanding because they have methodologies for determining what knowledge needs to be one the test by going out and collecting advice from experts,” he says.

“Let’s say you want to get a certification in pathology or laboratory science. The certification agency will go into laboratories or hospitals and watch what the people are doing. They will interview experts and find 20 to 30 volunteers who have been in the business for years to pool their wisdom. With them, they will determine what is needed to do this job these days. Then, they get to psychometricians and people who know about creating assessments and exams to create an exam that will actually test whether you have that knowledge.

Dr. Crawford shares that credentialing exams in these types of programs are generally offered by a third party rather than the person who teaches the material to students. He continues, “In the many professional associations that offer certifications, there should be (and usually is) a ‘firewall’ between the association management and the certification body. There are over 8,100 certifications in the US. Many people have them, whether it is as a welder, crane operator, or lab technician. Most teachers are certified, as are nursing assistants and financial planners.”

Due to the testing standard of many certifications, they can give an accurate picture of a credential-holder’s competence: “The beauty of certifications is that they’re very specific about competencies. That’s not true for a lot of degrees. Degrees are there to cultivate your thinking and understanding, but many of them are not intended to train you to do a specific job. Moreover, they don’t have to be renewed every few years.” says Dr. Crawford.

What to Look for in Online Non-Degree Credentials

With so many different kinds of online non-degree credentials available, it can be hard to discern which ones will be worth the time and investment. Dr. Crawford offers some advice on what to look for: “If the non-degree credential is for the purpose of getting ahead in your career, which is often the case, then you should try to find some evidence that people who get it have an edge over people who don’t,” he shares.

Some non-degree credentials offer data to help candidates decide if the credential is worth it or not, especially if they “have information on what the salaries of people who have the credential are and whether it makes any difference or not. Those charts are not easy to find and do not exist for quite a few,” says Dr. Crawford.

If entities that issue non-degree credentials don’t publish earnings or hiring data, candidates can look to other online tools to help them determine if the credential is worth it. For example, publishes a list of average salaries based on certifications.

For example, an apprentice electrician earns $17.32 per hour on average, while a general journeyman electrician earns $27.64. Another example is IT systems engineers earn $81,000 a year on average, while Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSE) earn an average of $99,000 as of May 2022.

Non-Degree Credentials as an Affordable Alternative

Many careers require aspiring professionals to complete a degree program—and for a valid reason. It is essential to have a base level of knowledge for some professions such as physicians, mental health therapists, genetic counselors, structural engineers, architects, and more.

That said, for fields where experience can substitute for formal learning or skills can be learned on the job, online non-degree credentials can be an alternative to completing college. Colleges themselves award large numbers of occupational certificates each year and play a major role in preparing students to take certification exams. The prerequisites for many certification exams are an associate or bachelor’s degree or several years of comparable experience, and most certification-holders actually have some kind of degree.

Dr. Crawford believes that “we should not push people to attend college who aren’t ready to go. It’s terrible when they go and then drop out after a year or two and they’ve accumulated debt. They’ve got nothing to show for it. We don’t tell them that there are other routes to middle-class careers, including apprenticeships, certifications that can be earned through free online courses such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, or experience and self-study.”

Resources to Learn More About Online Non-Degree Credentials

Navigating the vast world of non-degree credentials can be overwhelming. Here is a list of resources to help guide you:

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.