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3 Reasons Certificates Benefit Higher Ed


"If you look at the relationship between income and education, there’s almost a perfect correlation. But over the last 20 years, most of the income growth that’s gone to people with degrees has gone to people with higher degrees. My hunch is that as that continues, certificates will play a role in helping people move up the income ladder through advanced education—just not in programs that are quite as long or quite as expensive as they had been."

– Wayne Smutz, Dean of Continuing Education and Extension, UC Los Angeles

There’s a new credentialing player in town, and it’s giving degree programs a run for their money. In recent years, certificates have become increasingly popular, as students have begun concentrating more on skills needed in the workforce. Employers, in turn, are placing more emphasis on specialized skills than traditionally valued credentials like degrees. For higher ed institutions, certificates offer more than new revenue streams. They offer the chance to meet specific market needs and become leaders in the industry.

Outlined below are three reasons why certificates can benefit higher education:

1. They can help create lifelong learners

Today’s learners no longer obtain a four-year degree, get a job, and then say goodbye to the classroom forever. As the workforce expects an increasingly diverse and changing set of skills, students are going back to school to upgrade their credentials. There is tremendous potential for institutions to attract certificate students (who may enroll with or without a previous degree) back time and time again. By basing programming around what students actually need, institutions can transform certificate students to lifelong learners.

Here is what one higher ed researcher had to say about the potential for certificate students to enroll in further programs:

"A certificate is a great program for high school graduates in the middle to below-middle of the skill level. These are people that can tremendously benefit from this, especially if they get a job in-field. And they can potentially turn this success that they’d had in the certificate program to then getting a degree. A third of the people who get a certificate will go on to get a two- or four-year degree. Some people will get a certificate after they get a two- or four-year degree, so it’s flexible in that regard."

– Stephen Rose, Senior Economist, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

2. They help higher ed better align with workforce needs

Higher education has often been criticized for failing to produce graduates with tangible, workforce-ready skill sets. For non-STEM disciplines, this has especially been the case. Instead of focusing on what faculty want to teach, institutions should look at what kind of programming delivers the best return on investment possible for students looking to enter the workforce. Certificates help students gear up for employment upon graduation, aligning their skills with what employers actually want.

Here is what one industry leader had to say about the relation between workforce needs and certificate programs:

"Certificate programs of study have been identified as important to adult learners who are focused on workforce development and are concentrated in programs designed to prepare adult learners for specific workforce roles."

– Suzanne Buglione, Principal, CommunityBuild

3. They help institutions stand out as leaders in the industry

Institutions need to differentiate themselves if they are to survive in an increasingly competitive landscape. One way to do this is to focus on innovation and deliver students the ideal customer experience.  By developing a renowned certificate program that provides students with a specialized skillset for a particular industry, both employers and future students will recognize the institution’s leadership in a particular field. This can help with long-term growth, revenue generation and even marketing and branding.

Here is what one university administrator had to say about how certificates help institutions differentiate themselves:

"Cohesive content and student value results in a stronger financial gain; it is much easier to sell a certificate than a single course. Once a program has a solid track record, a crowning mark of success is its influence on an industry…Over the life of the program, participants, many of whom are actively engaged in social media, share experiences and best practices about their organization’s connections between projects, programs and strategy execution. The university’s potential to be viewed as a leader in this particular discipline starts to seed research, which in turn helps faculty continue to advance the discipline."

–Paul Marca, Executive Director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development, Stanford University


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Last updated: February 1, 2021


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