I recently leafed through a course catalog of the local community college and was surprised by the breadth of certification courses. These classes lead to a professional certificate in fields such as psychology, information technology, construction, and mechanical systems. Programs may consist of one course or many courses and are taken in addition to, or in lieu of, a traditional degree program. This is specialized instruction that leads to a specific skill. These certificates show a current or potential employer that you have mastered that skill and are ready to hit the ground running. I think that certificates will become an important tool to differentiate job seekers, so I set out to find out how popular and diverse these programs are.
Certificates vs. MOOCs
Certifications can be taken at the community college, undergraduate, or even graduate level. They often lead to licensure, as in the case of specialty teaching or nursing, or may serve as preparation for taking a certification test, such as those in information technology or engineering. The programs may stand alone without an accompanying degree, or they may be taken in conjunction with an undergraduate or graduate degree. For example, law students may study technology or business to enhance their skills by broadening the experiences. In the same vein, medical students may study bioinformatics to understand and conduct genetic analysis as part of their practice. These are examples of certifications that might give job seekers an edge over other candidates.
Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are generally free and do not lead to licensure or certification. Some MOOC courses offer either option and can lead to a certificate for a fee. While these certificates are not generally recognized in the workplace, that could change in the future.
Options Beyond Certificates
Some universities are modifying their traditional degree requirements to meet the changing needs of students. Many students are returning to school or are enrolling later in life after already establishing a career. These students may need more flexibility in the course schedule or in the completion time. Some universities such as Worcester Polytechnic Institute are layering traditional degree programs with experience-based specialties. The college offers a one year master’s of management degree for young graduates, who then have the option of returning after at least two years of industry experience to add an MBA. Offering degrees in stages serves the young graduates looking for management education and returning students looking to add to their previous investment. The key to certificates or specialty degree programs is flexibility and availability of relevant curriculum.
Other schools are moving towards interdisciplinary studies degrees. This may be a combination of business, communications and information management such as the UO AIM Program, or a traditional management, engineering, health care, or law degree that allows students to explore adjacent paths in cyber security or business analytics or telemedicine. Whether these paths lead to a certificate or a degree, they all provide students with particular skills that are needed in the workplace.
Certificate and customizable degree programs allow students to combine the value of a traditional curriculum while gaining the specialized skills that are in demand. I think that this customization will only increase in the future as students seek innovative educational experiences. Let me know your thoughts.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.