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From: Goldie Blumenstyk
Subject: Why Isn’t It a No-Brainer to Embed ‘Certifications’ Into Bachelor’s Degrees?
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I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. I’m back from some time off. Hope you all enjoyed your holidays, too. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.
Why isn’t it a no-brainer to embed ‘certifications’ into bachelor’s degrees?
At community colleges, the idea of students earning industry and professional certifications as they pursue their education is often standard operating procedure. At four-year colleges, not so much.
This is true even though recent research suggests that liberal-arts graduates can improve their job prospects considerably if they graduate with even one or two industry-specific skills along with their degree. So when I heard about a new project to encourage more bachelor’s-level institutions to embed certifications into their curricula, of course I was interested. I became even more interested — and little perplexed — when I learned from the project organizers that the college folks from the liberal arts seemed the most resistant to the idea.
The project involves three higher-ed groups (the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, and Upcea, which represents leaders in professional, continuing, and online education) and a five-year-old organization called Workcred, which promotes the use of quality credentials by educators and employers, and is backed by $320,000 from the Lumina Foundation. And it reflects Workcred’s vision for how the bachelor’s degree should be reimagined, with academics, work-based learning, and an industry-recognized credential all part of the package. “Those three components,” Roy Swift, the executive director of Workcred, told me, “will become the quality degree of the future.”
I’m not 100-percent sold on that vision. But I can see the logic of it. And apparently, based on some of the initial meetings between certification groups and college representatives from the health-care and cybersecurity disciplines, so do many of the colleges. (Folks representing manufacturing will meet next week, and those in retail and hospitality will be gathering in March.)
Let’s pause for a minute to clarify what a “certification” really involves, and how it differs from badges, licenses, and the certificates that many colleges increasingly offer at the conclusion of their shorter, non-degree programs. The big difference is that certifications are offered by associations or industry groups, based on a standardized exam that measures a person’s knowledge of relevant job skills. Also, as Swift noted, they’re valid for only a limited time period, can be revoked for incompetency or ethical lapses, and are not awarded by the same organizations that provided the education or training. Certifications, quite literally, are an independent measure of the industry standard. This handy one-pager from Workcred spells it out nicely.
Groups that offer certifications in financial planning, safety examination, and IT already work closely with several four-year colleges where the disciplines match up. And some institutions, like Ohio University, specifically aligned academic offerings — in this case its engineering-technology program — to prepare students for the exam to be a Certified Manufacturing Specialist. The new “nexus degree” experiment in Georgia that my colleague Alexander Kafka recently wrote about is a permutation on this idea as well.
But when Workcred put certification groups together with college folks representing the liberal arts, the reception wasn’t exactly warm. Isabel Cardenas-Navia, Workcred’s director of research, attended that session. For many four-year colleges, it seemed “a leap too far,” she told me. “They kept saying, ‘Our degree is enough.’’’
OK, let’s be generous, not judgy. Maybe some of their resistance was their feeling that their job was to prepare students with skills for the future, not the right now? Swift wasn’t buying it. “We find, actually, they’re behind.”
Shalin Jyotishi, APLU’s assistant director for economic development and community engagement, had a more sympathetic take. “There are some disciplines where this innovation lends itself more easily,” he said, while acknowledging the, uh, “mixed reception” the idea got from the liberal-arts contingent.
“Part of it is rhetoric,” he told me. “The liberal-arts faculty feeling squeezed or attacked or called out for not being relevant to employers.” Also, he noted, colleges are already facing pressures to add in more opportunities for things like internships, courses in entrepreneurship, and even coding. Add to that the push for education leading to certifications, and people get nervous about whether students can fit it all in and still graduate on time, which is still a big way colleges get measured by their lawmakers.
I get that. As Jyotishi noted, faculty are also continually being told to publish more, get more grants, do more advising. So this movement might easily seem like just one more demand on their time and one more attack on their expertise. Except for this: Resisting this idea undermines the value that an embedded certification could bring to students — not just the ones who graduate but even more so the ones forced by financial or family circumstances to leave school permanently or temporarily before getting their degree. That’s often a reality for students today, and the embedded certification could help ensure they don’t leave college with nothing.
The idea holds more potential.
The Workcred meetings are just the first step. Eventually, Workcred leaders hope that some of the 67 participating institutions will create some new experiments involving embedded certifications, and that the ideas catch on. One idea that has intrigued Swift is the notion of a generalized curriculum for entry into nursing or medicine, an idea first proposed by Heather Mitchell, who directs the BSN program at the University of Louisville. The approach, she told me, could give students options for other health-science careers and “to have a job while they’re going to school.” That can matter a lot.
Mitchell’s approach isn’t a formal proposal; it’s just her idea. Still, even before any experiments emerge, the project has been useful in other ways. For one, the meetings have surfaced the need for discussion about finances. Federal financial aid can’t be used for some non-degree programs, or the costs for certification exams, which can easily run several hundred dollars a pop. The exam for a project management certification costs $555; one from the Society of Human Resource Management is about $350. For low-income students, these aren’t trivial amounts. Universities might want to consider fund-raising for these costs, Jyotishi said, or push for changes in government financial-aid programs.
The meetings have also created some of the first opportunities for leaders of colleges and certification bodies to meet together. For many it was eye-opening. Jyotishi said “There were some certification folks who said, ‘What’s a provost?’”
That doesn’t really surprise me, When I was researching my “Career-Ready Education” report, I heard often about the importance of recognizing and bridging the culture gap between employers and colleges. So I guess the same is true for the certification bodies. It made Jyotishi realize, “We need a place to do this.”
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