Press Release

Non-Degree Postsecondary Education Explained


CAMBRIDGE, MA | July 19, 2017 — Millions of Americans receive postsecondary training through programs that don’t lead to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Until now, there have been few efforts to understand what those programs offer, who enrolls in them, and how their lives are impacted as a result. A new publication from the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences begins to fill that gap by offering a survey of “The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways.”

Authors Jessie Brown and Martin Kurzweil, at Ithaka S + R, a not-for-profit service that helps the academic community navigate economic and technological change, compiled what current research shows—and where further research needs to be conducted – so that cogent, informed policies can be developed to shape the future of this landscape.

The seeds of contemporary programs were planted in the 19th century when independent trade schools, company-operated factory schools, federally-funded school agricultural programs, and correspondence programs were developed to train workers and sustain lifelong learning. The 20th century saw increased options and participation for alternative pathways to credentials and the 21st century has ushered in unprecedented growth with changes in technology, demographics, employer needs, the affordability of degree programs, and federal policies. For example: enrollment in apprenticeship programs increased by 50 percent in between 2008 and 2015; enrollment in MOOCs grew from 17 million in 2015 to 35 million in 2016; and the number of certificates awarded by Title IV-eligible postsecondary institutions increased by 73 percent from 2000 to 2013, while the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by those institutions increased by only 49 percent.

“The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways” identifies and explains five primary categories of alternative forms of postsecondary education: certificate programs; work-based training, such as apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job training; skills-based short courses, such as coding bootcamps; massive open online courses (MOOCs) and online micro-credentials; and competency-based education programs.

Authors Brown and Kurzweil reach several conclusions regarding the utility and future prospects of alternative programs, and their relationship to traditional degree programs. They note that alternative credentials and pathways typically take less time, have more flexible formats, and are more directly aligned with employer-defined skills than traditional degree programs. Yet the earnings of certificate holders vary widely by field, with the average annual in-field earnings for those working in computer and information services at above $70,000 while the average in-field earnings of individuals with cosmetology certificates are just over $25,000.

Traditional degrees and degree programs are likely to retain their value. However, universities are already evolving to incorporate features of these alternative pathways and integrate academic with nonacademic experiences.

While a review of the data sheds some light on alternative pathways, it also identified areas still in the shadows due to lack of information. Authors Brown and Kurzweil conclude with recommendations for policy-makers, funders, and the higher education community:

  • Invest in a more comprehensive data system that captures longitudinal, student-record data on students’ experiences across the full array of postsecondary pathways, as well as information about providers and their programs and credentials. Until the data is collected, questions about these programs, and their value for students and taxpayers, will remain unanswered.
  • Adjust quality assurance processes to allow for accurate and comparable evaluation of alternative programs, robustly enforce quality standards for all providers, and accelerate the process of integrating quality alternative pathways and credentials into the federal financial aid system.
  • Support rigorous research on the efficacy and return on investment of existing and emerging alternative pathways and the value of alternative credentials.

This analysis of alternative pathways is a fitting component of the work of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. The Commission, with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, is analyzing undergraduate education while looking ahead to the educational challenges and opportunities facing Americans. In a final report to be released in fall 2017, the Commission will recommend a strategy to improve and strengthen undergraduate education to advance the development of individuals, a broadly engaged citizenry, national prosperity, and international stature.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences received $2.2 million from Carnegie Corporation of New York to support the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. Spencer Foundation President Michael S. McPherson and TIAA President and CEO Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. co-chair the Commission, which includes national leaders in education, business, and government. A complete list of Commission members is available on the Commission's page.

Download The Complex Universe of Alternative Postsecondary Credentials and Pathways.

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Contact
Alison Franklin / American Academy of Arts and Sciences /

Ithaka S + F Author Contact
Kimberly Lutz / Ithaka S+R /




Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education

Roger W. Ferguson and Michael S. McPherson