Embedding Industry Certifications into our Degree Programs

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Market certifications have been embedded in community colleges, but we haven’t seen that same level of interest at the bachelor’s degree level. Yet we know that an increasing number of job postings require applicants to hold both a bachelor’s degree and proven skills relevant to that occupation.

What is the value in integrating certifications into degree programs? And why does higher ed need a framework for doing this better?

Karen Elzey, Associate Executive Director at Workcred, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the partnerships and convenings that created a new framework for embedding industry certifications into our degree programs.

Why Integrate Certifications Into Your Degree Programs?

New graduates entering the workforce and adult learners changing their career pathway may find they lack the applied knowledge employers expect. But an industry-based credential, such as a certification, can offer evidence of work-related skills. 

The magic happens when we take two really strong types of credentials, degrees and certifications, and marry them so that a student can earn both simultaneously. This  approach ultimately provides graduates with better labor market outcomes. 

A Framework for Partnerships

Karen’s project brought together multiple organizations — Workcred, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, the University Coalition for Urban Serving Institutions, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association. More than 150 participants from certifications and universities across the country worked together on specific industry sectors, including healthcare, cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing. 

Each time the groups met, the discussion highlighted different partnership models between certification bodies and universities as a starting point for how schools might create certification/degree pathways. 

Participants also talked about the challenges, opportunities, and benefits that universities and certification bodies face when implementing these pathways. 

Six Steps to Creating Certification Degree Pathways

  1. Get leadership buy-in at all levels. Answer the question: What’s in it for me? from multiple perspectives — students, faculty, administration, certification director, and community. 
  2. Create a common language. Universities and certification bodies don’t speak the same language. And in fact, they lack knowledge about the governance and the structure of each organization. One of the key issues for Karen’s group was understanding the definition of different credentials. For example, what is a certification versus a certificate? 
  3. Align competencies. A certification body usually certifies someone after they have passed an exam. That exam has a test blueprint, which outlines the content being assessed. The whole point of aligning competencies is to understand what is being assessed on that test blueprint and what is currently being taught in the academic program. If there’s a gap, how do you add additional curriculum? And what does that look like? 
  4. Determine the appropriate fit. Where does the certification fit into a four-year bachelor’s degree? Is it used as a course capstone? Is it used as a program capstone? Are you aligning the curriculum with the competencies of the certification exam, so that once the student completes their bachelor’s degree, they can then sit for the certification exam?
  5. Allocate resources. There are costs to this approach. One is the cost of the certification exam. How do we ensure that we’re not increasing equity gaps by only allowing students who have the resources to take the certification exam? How can we support students of all income levels as they pursue this new pathway? 
  6. Identify how the university is going to communicate that students have earned both a degree and a certification. How does this appear on transcripts or learning and employment records? Are you using digital badges or digital portfolios? 


Academic Governance Concerns?

Is the tail wagging the dog here? Does this approach make academic governance too subservient to local employers and third-party certificates?

Maybe a better question is this: What do students want upon completion of their program? 

Answer: employment. 

To gain employment, graduates often need both a good education and technical skills. You see this specifically in occupations such as IT, where certifications are very valuable. 

There’s also an opportunity to expand students’ horizons about what career opportunities could be for them. Let’s take a Spanish major as an example. Coupled with certification in medical translation, this major could equip graduates to use their Spanish skills in an identified career pathway. 

Philosophy majors? Go get that degree in philosophy and apply what you’ve learned in philosophy to IT. We’ve even seen new certifications that are looking at the ethics of emerging technologies. 

Most universities realize that their degrees could be enhanced by providing technical skills and third-party validations.

Next Steps to Make Degree Programs More Market Friendly

“We put together a report on everything we’ve learned, which is on our website at Workcred,” Karen said. Don’t forget to look at the appendices, which outline the value propositions of the project. 

Currently, Workcred is trying to secure additional funding to test models of certification degree pathways and learn  how this framework can be applied at different types of institutions at different places across the country.  

This post is based on a podcast interview with Karen Elzey of Workcred. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.