Minority Credential Attainment: Data Show that Field of Study is Make-or-Break for Minority Credential Earners

June 22, 2015

By Manuela Ekowo

Minorities are less likely than other working-age adults to obtain a postsecondary credential according to the most recent Census data and other data on U.S. credential attainment. Postsecondary education is critical to succeeding in today’s economy. By 2020, two-thirds of jobs will require a degree or certificate. However, not all credentials are created equal; some are more coveted by employers than others. That makes it essential for students, especially minority students, to choose fields of study that provide in-demand skills and lead to good jobs.

While a college degree can help workers advance in the economy, non-degree credentials also have value in the labor market. The value of degrees and non-degree credentials depends on the field of study. Moreover, a student can earn a non-degree credential or a degree and still not have the skills employers are looking for. Recent Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) data show that credential attainment in the U.S. doesn’t assure that credential holders have the knowledge, skills, and abilities employers need. Both employers and students suffer when workers are inadequately equipped with the skills that employers and our economy demand.

Because minorities tend to disproportionately earn more non-degree credentials than degrees, it is essential that they attain the credentials that have high value and acquire the skills and competencies necessary to be competitive in the labor force.

According to U.S. Census 2013 data, the highest credential attained by the majority of Americans is a high school diploma, and fewer than a third have earned a bachelor’s or higher as their highest level of degree attainment. The Lumina Foundation’s A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education report illustrates that 19.8% of U.S. adults have a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of education. However, blacks and Hispanic Americans earn high school diplomas and bachelor’s and advanced degrees at even lower rates. 

CPES chart

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Postsecondary certificates, certifications, and licenses awarded to students have grown in the past decade. In 2007-2008, institutions approved under Title IV of the U.S. Higher Education Act awarded 749,883 certificates of all types. Many U.S. adults have a postsecondary certificate, certification, or license, but minorities are disproportionately more likely to earn postsecondary certificates, certifications, and licenses and less likely to earn associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees.  


While most U.S. adults earn postsecondary certificates mainly at public community colleges, minorities earn them mainly at private career colleges. In 2011, community college completion rates within eight years of enrolling for all students was 37 percent, and was less than half of that at 18 percent for minorities



Finally, the choice of credential can also have an impact on income. Depending on industry and occupational choice, the connection between educational attainment and wages isn’t straight forward. For example, 43 percent of workers with licenses and certificates earn more than their colleagues with an associate’s degree. About 27 percent of workers with licenses and certificates earn more than employees with a bachelor’s degree. Therefore, the choice of field of study is all the more critical to minorities’ success in the labor market. 



For more information on credentials, visit CLASP's Resources on Postsecondary Credentials page. 

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CLASP calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau’s SEX BY EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT FOR THE POPULATION 25 YEARS AND OVER (BLACK OR AFRICAN AMERICAN ALONE), 2011-2013 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates

CLASP calculations based on U.S. Census Bureau’s SEX BY  EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT FOR THE POPULATION 25 YEARS AND OVER (HISPANIC OR LATINO) 2011-2013 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates

Certificates Count: An Analysis of Sub-baccalaureate Certificates, Complete College America, 2010, p. 9.

Certificates Count: An Analysis of Sub-baccalaureate CertificatesComplete College America, 2010, p. 9. 

“Figure 5.12” in Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2010. 

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