This post has been updated.

Commencement at Craven Community College in New Bern, N.C. A new report stresses the importance of post-secondary certificates earned at community colleges. (Byron Holland — AP Photo/New Bern Sun Journal)

Certificates are a relatively new and increasingly popular postsecondary credential, awarded typically by a community college or for-profit college for training in a particular occupation. Most certificates take less than a year to complete, although some “long-term” certificate programs can take as long as four years.

Since 1980, certificates have grown from 6 percent to 22 percent of all postsecondary awards, making them the fastest-growing credential, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. It is titled “Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees.”

Lead author Anthony Carnevale says certificates could be the key to delivering American higher education from its current college-attainment slump.

Certificates are a “stepping stone” to a degree, the report states, in that 20 percent of certificate holders go on to get two-year associate degrees and another 13 percent eventually earn bachelor degrees.

Many surveys of college attainment don’t count certificates. The authors estimate that if even the most economically valuable certificates were properly counted, the nation’s college attainment rate would rise from 41 percent to 46 percent.

“At a time when 36 million American workers who attended college did not complete a degree, certificates are piecemeal, attainable, bite-sized educational awards that can add substantially to postsecondary completion,” the report states.

The authors reason that this increase would theoretically lift the nation to 10th in international standing for college attainment, from 15th currently. The international survey, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, includes degrees but not certificates.

In a recent article, I wrote that our rank in attainment had dipped from 12th to 16th, based on the current figure of 41 percent attainment. (Our analysis was based on a slightly larger group of nations than the Georgetown researchers considered.)

Carnevale contends certificates should factor into President Obama’s goal of regaining the world lead in attainment. Indeed, the president’s American Graduation Initiative focuses heavily on community colleges and professional training.

Certificate holders earn more in some fields than people with bachelor’s degrees in less-well-paying fields. Carnevale’s research focuses heavily on the notion that the American job market increasingly rewards field of study rather than level of degree. In other words: It’s more important what you study than how long you study.