The Somnambulist


Studying the impact of certificate programs in the higher ed landscape

Research surrounding student debt and the labor market value of postsecondary degrees focuses primarily on students obtaining a 4-year degree, secondarily on students receiving a 2-year degree, and only rarely considers students in certificate programs—non-degree awards that are cheaper and shorter than traditional degree programs. The scarcity of discourse on certificate programs is remarkable; given the rising costs of education and declining college premiums, certificate programs have assumed an increasingly large role in the postsecondary landscape. Moreover, the mission of community colleges has gradually shifted away from academic preparation and towards vocational education and job training programs.

There is very little in the way of a literature examining the role that certificate award programs play in the postsecondary landscape. In a rare example, a 2016 paper by DI XU and MADELINE JOY TRIMBLE estimates “the relationship between earning a certificate and student earnings and employment status after exiting college.” The authors use detailed student-level information from North Carolina and Virginia to understand the impact of certificates on individual employment and wage earnings:

“The paper indicates that certificates have positive impacts on earnings in both states overall, and in cases where there is no impact on earnings, certificates may nonetheless lead to increased probability of employment or to other benefits. In some cases, certificates appear to promote entry into a student’s desired industry of employment, even if the industry switch is not associated with an increase in earning on average. The paper finds substantial variation in the returns across fields of study and, more importantly, across specific programs within a particular field. These results suggest that important evidence is lost when information about the benefits of certificate programs are simply averaged together. Therefore, it is important to evaluate the programs earnings relative to the institutional context and the local labor market.”

Link to the paper.

  • In a corresponding blog post, Xu writes: “There needs to be multiple measures to evaluate the benefits of a certificate program, rather than merely evaluating its impact on overall earnings. Policies that tie funding or other benefits to the earnings of program graduates alone may unfairly penalize programs that provide implicit economic benefits to students or that improve students’ lives in other important ways.” Link.
  • Similar to these findings, a 2005 study provides evidence that certificate programs function as a retraining tool to help “high-tenure displaced workers” find work in a changing job market. The paper—authored by Louis Jacobson, Robert LaLonde, and Daniel Sullivan—finds that certificate programs in the technical fields and education increased the long-term earnings of displaced workers. Link.
  • In their 2014 paper, Stephanie Cellini and Claudia Goldin chart the relationship between federal student aid and for-profit colleges, showing that for-profits “produced 42 percent of vocational certificates, 18 percent of associate’s degrees, 5 percent of bachelor’s degrees, and 10 percent of master’s degrees.” Link.


Examining whether competent politicians can compensate for poor insitutions.

MARIA CARRERI applies an original measure of ‘competence’ to interviews with 306 Italian mayors in order to test whether political skill increases the linkelihood of passing effective legislation. Her analysis finds that in municipalities with flawed informal institutions, more competent mayors are able to use financial resources more productively, increase long-term investments, and provide better local services without raising taxes. From the paper:

“Recent evidence suggests that local governments might be the very place where significant policy change can take place, given the lower relevance of partisan polarization in this context… Applying the methodology that I developed in this paper to the study of politicians managing U.S. municipal governments represents a promising area of future research.”

Link to the paper, and link to Maria Carreri’s website.

Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way:


  • The Mayor of Newark announced the city’s Basic Income pilot project during his State of the City Address on Tuesday. JFI and ESP are launching the project’s taskforce in the coming weeks. Link to coverage of the announcement.
  • “Based on a detailed review of the capacities of existing technologies, [I argue] that automation is not a major threat to workers today, and that it will not likely be a major threat anytime soon.” By Brishen Rogers of Temple University. Link
  • A new paper by Julian Gewirtz examines how the work of American writer Alvin Toffler and other futurists influenced Chinese officials and policies during China’s “New Technological Modernization.” Link.
  • From the Pedestrian Observations blog: Why are the costs for constructing transit infrastructure so high in America? “[Americans] can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.” Link. ht Steve Randy Waldman
  • “Because antitrust has effectively established a state monopoly on the allocation of coordination rights, we ought to view coordination rights as a public resource, to be allocated and regulated in the public interest rather than for the pursuit of only private ends.” By Sanjukta Paul. Link.
  • Barry Eichengreen reflects on the sustainability of US government debt. Link
  • Via Henry Farrell: a new paper by Uma Jayakumar and Scott E. Page provides insight into holistic college admissions processes and correlates social capital and ideas of exceptionalism. “Our model describes three distinct effects: an opportunity effect: students from high socioeconomic statuses have the opportunity to try more activities; a specialization effect: those opportunities are biased toward elite activities that colleges desire, and a support effect: these students receive better coaching and training, enjoy more familial support, and also benefit from healthier diets and lifestyles.” Link.
  • A major new PNAS study develops a “pollution inequity” metric, establishing evidence of “the difference between the environmental health damage caused by a racial–ethnic group and the damage that group experiences.” The study shows non-Hispanic white experience 17% less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption, while Black and Hispanic people bear exposure 56% and 63% in excess of their consumption. Link to the study, link to news coverage.
  • “Economics is a tricky business: Even smart, highly trained people often get it wrong the first time and on their own, so designing the professional environment to ensure that different perspectives are brought to bear can be seen as part of the ‘quality assurance’ process.” Amanda Bayer and David Wilcox on the unequal distribution of economic education. Link.
  • “With increased globalization and climate change, there is an intensifying focus by governments and nongovernmental organizations on preparing for invasive species before they arrive, especially in the places most vulnerable to injurious impacts.” Undark covers the coming wave of crop-destroying invasive species. Link.
  • “By ignoring the social interactions that characterize real-world community contexts, randomized studies underestimate the decline in labor market participation and its impact on employers. These findings depend to a great extent on the details of the policy design, and as such I conclude that the oft-proposed right-left ideological alliance on basic income is unlikely to survive the move from basic income as a broad policy umbrella to basic income as a concrete policy option.” An essay on guaranteed income and pilot design by David Calnitsky. Link.
  • Insufficient sleep reduces voting and other prosocial behavior. Link.
  • “A revolutionary vanguard wants to persuade citizens to mobilize. To do so, it must convince our citizen (and others like him or her) that the probability of success is sufficiently high. To do this, it must convince him or her that his or her fellow citizens are in fact quite antigovernment. The tool that the vanguard has at its disposal is insurgent violence, such as guerilla or terrorist attacks. These attacks may be persuasive to our citizen because she believes that the vanguard cannot produce a high level of violence without the support of the surrounding population. Thus, high levels of vanguard violence suggest, to our citizen, a high level of antigovernment sentiment in the population as a whole.” A 2010 paper by Ethan Bueno de Mesquita on regime change and revolutionary entrepreneurs. Link.

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