Leadership & Governance

A School Focuses on Moving Students Into the Work Force

Dennis Di Lorenzo, dean of New York University’s School of Professional Studies, describes how recent changes at his institution aim to help more students get jobs.

April 01, 2016

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza

The 80-year-old School of Professional Studies at New York University offers non-credit-bearing courses that help make students job-ready. Dennis Di Lorenzo, the school’s dean, discusses how he and his faculty keep up with the changing needs of industry. Meanwhile, change is also hitting closer to home: The marketplace for credentials like the school’s is shifting, as other education providers offer competing alternatives, like badges.

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For Mr. Di Lorenzo, the immediate needs of students are key. Sometimes, he says, “it’s creating an opportunity for a job," not a career.



DAN BERRETT: Hi, we're here with Dennis Di Lorenzo, dean of the School of Professional Studies at New York University. Dean Di Lorenzo, welcome to The Chronicle.

DENNIS DI LORENZO: My pleasure to be here.

DAN BERRETT: Thanks. So the School of Professional Studies at NYU has been around for about 80 years.


DAN BERRETT: And it has grown over time to offer programs and things like digital applications, and social entrepreneurship, and things I think were probably uncontemplated decades ago.

DENNIS DI LORENZO: I think that is correct.

DAN BERRETT: How do you and your faculty think about what programs to add and will be of real value to people? And what is just a fad?

DENNIS DI LORENZO: We get ideas from our industry partners all the time or individual organizations that may have a need for one type of employee. What we really begin to look at is the job market across the field. And when we start to see a conglomeration of job titles being created, that's when we realize that we have a trend happening, and it's time for us to think about adapting our programming to meet that specific need versus just meeting an individual organization's need for a particular position.

What we began to hear from our industry partners is, we're not quite sure what these credentials mean. They were a marketing construct more than they were a validation of skill acquisition. And that is the truth. And the reality is, in the 20th century, that was OK. Companies were invested in tuition reimbursement.

They were invested in professional development that had a longer term impact on the organization because employees were staying much longer. So allowing an employee to self-select and build their skills at a slower pace, and validating open enrollment without having rigorous assessment was OK. Because again, it was all about long-term investment.

As job market has shifted, employees are staying much less time than they used to. Employers want to know that they're getting the bang for their buck. And they want to ensure that the credentials they're looking at have a stamp of approval so that they don't have to do the vetting.

DAN BERRETT: So do you see what you're doing as similar to badging?

DENNIS DI LORENZO: We do badging, but I want to separate out — so we got rid of that certificate, that credentialed open-enrollment exposure-based education. We're still offering those courses for people who want PD of their own volition. We're just not credentialing it and saying to employers, this isn't NYU's stamp of approval. This is this person's acquired skills in this field.

What we introduced into the marketplace, as we redefine professional pathways, was a non-credit, accelerated, prescriptive program called Diploma. So "diploma" means a lot of different things to a lot of people. For us, we wanted to differentiate from "certificate." But what is a diploma at NYU SPS? Well, it is a one-semester program of accelerated training for a particular set of jobs in a field. And so it's very prescriptive.

It's not "come and get a diploma in real estate and break into real estate." It's "come and get a diploma in service management and restaurant operations if you're a student with a high-school diploma that wants income mobility in one semester." And we're going to actually create job opportunities for you.

If you're a post-bacc with a bachelor of business administration, come and take one of our advanced diplomas in energy finance. These are the five jobs we're training you for. And throughout this experience, we are going to do rigorous assessment. So not every student is going to attain the diploma by the end of it, because we are validating that skill acquisition in a rigorous way.

The students are also coming out with work product so that when they go into the job market, they can actually demonstrate to employers the learning that occurred while they were in the program. Most of them are one semester. There are few content areas — like medical coding, where you have to learn anatomy and physiology — that require you to be in program longer. So they are two or three semesters. But what makes these programs different is their prescription and their rigorous learning validation.

The other signal we wanted to send to the marketplace was: Set realistic expectations. So in the old world of certificate programs, you could be a high-school graduate working as a receptionist going into our certificate in social-media marketing. And then you could be a midlevel marketing professional with 10 years of experience in the industry going for the same credential.

Putting yourself out there in the marketplace is someone trained in this space with different education levels, bringing your own background to it. But the market — or at least our industry partners — were saying, well, it's kind of weird that we're interviewing someone who may be a receptionist with those credentials, and someone with 10 years of experience. And they both were in the same classroom.

Are you really qualifying them for the kinds of jobs that a certificate of social-media marketing is supposed to lead to? Well, that's really setting false expectations because, most likely, the person with five years of experience or 10 years of experience is really the person we're looking for.

And so in creating the prescription, we created three levels. We said we're going to have a basic diploma for those who have a high school — who are high-school graduates. We're going to have a professional diploma where we're going to require some college — 32 credits. And then we're going to have an advanced diploma for post-bacc. These are also not going to be loose in the sense of take four courses and then declare the certificate. These are going to be admissions based.

Our admissions process is designed to let people in, not keep people out. Sometimes admissions processes are designed to keep people out. But there's a certain population that we can reasonably say, by the end of the program we're not going to be able to create an opportunity for a job for you. And we don't want to take your money if that is the case, and here are the factors that we see in your profile that lead us to believe that.

Because we are trying to create the bridge from training to job. And I want to separate job and career. I have a school that has a diverse set of programs at the graduate, undergraduate, noncredit levels. And we do a lot of investment in career trajectory and pathways.

And somehow, over the last 80 years, the conversation about job got lost. It was, you want to be a professional in this field, come and take this program. And the prescription got lost. And we did set some false expectations, and we forgot that part of our work is just creating an opportunity for a job.

And diplomas do that. What they do is say to someone, OK, you may want to go into real estate. You may not. But you are a person who needs an opportunity, and you need it quickly. And here's an area that you can focus on based on your educational level and your experience. And within six months, hopefully we will give you an opportunity to get into a job.

DAN BERRETT: Great. Well, thank you very much.

DENNIS DI LORENZO: You're welcome.

DAN BERRETT: Dean Di Lorenzo, we appreciate you stopping by.