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The Obama administration has long-touted a college degree as the ticket to a middle-class life. But they’ve also begun devoting resources to looking at how people with “alternative educational credentials” fare.

The Census Bureau recently released a report about people who have professional licenses and certificates along with information about how much they earn. The results look promising for people with such credentials and experts say the report could alter how people talk about higher education.

There are 50 million people in the United States who have some type of educational credential or certificate that is not a college degree, according to the report. While some of those credentials go hand-in-hand with college degrees - a teaching certificate, for example - more than 11 million people who hold a high school diploma or less also have certificates.

The Census has always counted that group as high school graduates, but with this more-nuanced report, they might now be labeled “more than high school,” the report says, which would recategorize “almost five percent of the adult population.”


Even better, those with some form of a credential earn more than those who don’t, according to the report, even if it didn’t involve a college degree. It’s not something that surprises people like Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first investor and the co-founder and former CEO of PayPal. Thiel’s foundation has urged companies, particularly those in the tech industry, to recognize the value of a certificate that confirms coding knowledge, for instance, and not to see degrees as absolute signs of qualification.


The report is still new and it’s not clear what impact it will have long-term, but the fact that alternative credentials are something the Census Bureau is tracking is encouraging.

Right now, most federal educational assistance goes toward people pursuing degrees. But as the Census and government begin to take a more in-depth look at how much non-degree credential holders earn and how they fare economically, that could also change. That’s still likely years away, but the new report is a step in the right direction.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.