A Matter of Degrees

Evolution of the certificate track is adding a new dimension to the concept of higher learning, opening the doors to lifelong learning.

For the record, the four-year college degree isn’t going away. Neither is the masters, nor the doctoral degree. Change may indeed occur within the ivory towers, but 1,000 years of Western educational culture isn’t going to vanish any time soon. That’s not to say, however, that what’s going on inside the towers remains static.

“What I find interesting is when I talk with the business community and leaders, I hear things like ‘we need students to be analytical, to enhance their writing and have better communications skills, and to be able to work in teams.’” — David Cook, vice chancellor, KU Edwards campus

In the face of unprecedented amounts of knowledge available to a global population, and national economies that intertwine with others around that globe, pressure is building for universities to be more responsive to the needs of various constituents—and one of those constituencies is the business world that will, presumably, employ the products of those universities for decades to come.

A key piece of that current innovation entails the creation of programs to award certificates for short courses in various skill sets—from office operations to manufacturing processes, supply chain management, bioscience and IT support roles, general business and other disciplines. And more of that is taking place within the four-year campus settings, moving state and private universities and colleges into a domain long populated by those developing courses for community colleges.

That movement, education executives say, is changing higher education in multiple ways: It meets immediate business demands for workers with certain skill sets, it helps students manage the cost of acquiring knowledge, it even helps in recruiting and retention efforts by creating pathways for certificate-holders who might not otherwise have pursued a four-year-degree to do just that. 

It is, says new UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal, the advent of Bite-Sized Education.

“What’s important to realize is that lifelong learning is the new norm,” he says. “There is more knowledge available today on a smart phone than any professor can give by standing in front of a class and lecturing. What happens in class is not as much about knowledge dissemination; it’s about how to go through the kinds of knowledge available nowadays, through critical thinking and figure out what’s real and right.”

At a recent economic assembly, Agrawal stressed the need for development of more certificate-level courses that can be stacked into course-credit packages and either produce their own type of new degree, or contribute significantly to current degree tracks.

“That’s the piece we’re beginning to teach at institutions, and it’s going to be a big piece of four-year education going forward,” he said. Rather than simply teaching to the course syllabus, he said, it’s imperative that higher education now “teach students how to learn.”

At the University of Kansas’ Edwards campus in Overland Park, certificate programs avoid the space filled by community colleges for freshmen and juniors, targeting upper class students, graduates and working adults looking to supplement their skill sets.

“We’ve been doing certificates for quite a while now, and we’re going to see more of that,” said vice chancellor David Cook. “I think we have 20 different certificates now for credentials that can stack into different kinds of degrees in software engineering, behavioral health and others, and on the non-degree side, in professional and continuing education, we’re doing non-credit certifications, too, in things like leadership development and full-stack coding.”

The pressure on four-year colleges to respond to changes in the world around them is in large part driven by business needs, he said, but also out of concern for ensuring that students are realizing the value of their education investment. But in some quarters, that pressure is seen as a threat to what universities have long stood for with liberal-arts programming, as opposed to business-specific coursework.

“What I find interesting is when I talk with the business community and leaders, I hear things like ‘we need students to be analytical, to enhance their writing and have better communications skills, and to be able to work in teams,’” Cook said. “But those elements are the backbone of a traditional liberal-arts education. There’s a tremendous value in having that liberal-arts background. In my mind, it’s not either/or—we have to embrace liberal arts. But we have to work with business and industry as well. The world is changing and technology is changing in amazing ways.”

For Kim Beatty, who became chancellor at Metropolitan Community College last year, higher education in Missouri is a bit behind the rest of the country in terms of incorporating these lines of study into campus programming. Addressing longer-term educational needs, though, will be just that: Long-term.

“Although we have a huge gap with people leaving the work force and high-demand jobs being unfilled with Baby Boomer retirements, there is still not the mindset in the work force that much of this work is sexy,” Beatty said. Addressing that will require short-term and intermediate steps as well, she said.

“The short term is the immediacy of now, with industry leaders saying ‘I don’t need 1,000 employees in two years, I have an immediate problem now.’ For MCC and other community college in the state, we have to target the adult learner and help them to see the career opportunities.”

Middle term, she said, requires working with high schools and creating more programs like MCC’s collaboration with JE Dunn and the North Kansas City school district to create the North Kansas City Construction Academy. Long-term, then, requires “penetrating elementary and middle schools, changing the mindset of the parents and expanding awareness of where livable wages can be found.

“That’s not a new conversation for us, because it’s always been core to our mission,” Beatty said. “The challenge in Missouri, where we’re behind, is in helping the citizenry understand that these are good fields. And they are the pathway to making $46,000 a year out of school, then working your way up the ladder, adding more education” and even attaining leadership ranks within their companies.