For those anxious about committing to a master’s degree, there is the post-baccalaureate certificate. Usually a four- to seven-course, self-contained credential, the certificate provides specialized academic study, or job-specific skills training, with a minimum investment of time and money, and potentially significant payback.

Nearly 51,000 people earned the credential in 2010 — a 46 percent increase in five years, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. For men, having the credential adds an average 25 percent in earnings; for women, who tend toward less technical (read lower-paying) fields such as teaching and health care, the boost is an average 13 percent, according to research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. About 3 percent of the workforce — or 4 million workers — have certificates.

Certificates are market-driven. Colleges and universities, alert to evolving workplace requirements (and business opportunities in higher ed), identify gaps in education and training that appeal to adult students looking for a way to stand out or retool their careers.

Schools and employers know that not everyone needs or wants a full degree to do that. But many times, once enrolled in a certificate, students get a “low-risk test drive” of graduate education, says Jonathan Tubman, vice provost for graduate studies at American University. Some certificate programs are composed of graduate-level courses, and some are attached to a graduate degree in the subject area and can be rolled over for continued master’s study.

Many master’s students simultaneously earn a certificate in a sub-specialty in their area of study.

This story is part of The Washington Post Magazine’s Education Review (Olimpia Zagnoli/Marlena Agency)

Sometimes enrollment in a certificate eases entry into a master’s program for those with less-than-stellar undergraduate records, but who prove to be dedicated adult students. Success in the certificate can prove academic maturity, and time with professors and at the school forges relationships that often facilitate admission to the full degree.

Kristin Williams, assistant provost for graduate enrollment at George Washington University (which offers 110 certificate programs), says that employers do not view them the same as a full degree, and whether they are impressed by the credential varies by discipline and specific job requirements.

In some fields, especially health care, education, counseling, engineering and technology, certificates provide mandatory training for certain jobs or promotions, or make one eligible for higher pay scales. In other fields (women’s studies, arts management, interior design, grant proposal writing, public relations), the credential shows interest and acquired knowledge in an area that is likely helpful in performing a job, but not mandatory for hire. Other certificates reflect strengths in areas so new, or quickly changing, that a demonstrated specialty can put a job applicant in front of the pack: homeland security, sustainable landscaping, sports industry management. Some are purely academic (African American studies), and some are training-specific (paralegal studies or clinical research administration).

If you can think of a specialty or job skill you want, there is probably a certificate, and a school — on-ground or online — that will credential you in the subject. But it is a buyer-beware marketplace, education experts says. A credential can run into the thousands of dollars (American University’s 15-credit online digital media skills certificate costs $12,000), so job prospects and schools should be researched before signing on.

For Tiffany Waddell, a certificate in PACs and Political Management from GWU was just what she needed to move to the next level professionally, she says. Now the majority fund director for the Republican National Committee, Waddell had been working as a manager in political advocacy at the trade group Printing Industries of America when she noticed an ad for GWU’s certificate offerings. Something about its wording — “Bring Us Your Ambition” — struck a chord, she says.

She had not intended to earn a master’s, but because GWU offered the option of rolling over the 15-credit certificate into a 30-credit master’s of professional studies in legislative affairs, she decided to continue her studies. The certificate and the degree, she says, were “extremely critical to her career development” and in landing the RNC job.

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