Combining Degrees with Quality Certifications is a Win for Everyone

Combining Degrees with Quality Certifications is a Win for Everyone
Samuel Hodges/Samuel Hodges Photography/The Home Depot via AP

Students, educational providers, and employers are all seeking innovative strategies to ensure their futures in this era of uncertainty. As the higher education sector begins planning for the fall semester and beyond, creating new stackable credential pathways are seen as one such innovation. 

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Many colleges have started to embed industry certifications, independent credentials that measure knowledge for competent performance in a specific job or field, (not to be confused with licenses or certificates) into undergraduate and graduate degrees, so that students benefit from a broad-based education as well as specific skills needed to thrive in an ever-changing workplace. This strategy provides life-long pathways to good jobs and is growing in popularity.

In a recent Strada Education Network survey, 30% of respondents believed that if they lost their job, they would need more education to replace it. A slightly higher number said they would look to change careers. So it is no surprise that the majority of adults considering enrolling in an education or training program in the next six months prefer non-degree programs and two-thirds are seeking education to gain skills for a new or current career rather than for personal interests. Yet Millennials, most likely to have lost jobs, income, or hours in light of COVID-19, are more interested in enrolling in four-year colleges, community colleges, and online colleges compared to 2019.

Around one-fifth of U.S. adults hold certifications, and adults with a bachelor’s degree are slightly more likely to hold one than adults without degrees, and certification holders earn more than those without. The data suggests that certifications provide professional value at all education levels and Strada’s surveys indicate growing demand for them. But identifying which industry certification should be tied to a degree is a challenge.

With support from Lumina Foundation, we have been convening university and certification body leaders in key sectors to understand how to integrate certifications and degrees, including defining measures of quality. Since the right certifications can pay real dividends for college graduates, here are some practical tips we encountered through our project to help institutions to spot a quality certification.

Evaluate a certification’s purpose and value

Certifications provide a unique value compared to a certificate, license, and/or degree. The purpose of a certification is to demonstrate competencies relevant to a job that are developed through a job task analysis, a process that identifies the tasks and associated knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) required to competently perform a job. Certifications are typically comprised of standardized exams, require lifelong learning through re-certification processes (e.g., examinations, professional development courses), and may be revoked because of incompetence or unethical behavior.

“We see degrees and certifications as complementary. Both serve a unique purpose that better prepares our students for the workforce,” said Gigi Escoe, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, the University of Cincinnati. Escoe participated in our project workshop and has experience with degree-certification pathways. “Our faculty and students recognize the value in combining a broad-based foundation afforded by a bachelor’s degree with specific skill mastery verified by industry certifications.”

Learners and institutions can assess the value of an industry certification based on whether it is required or preferred for employment. In the healthcare industry, respiratory therapists, all of whom hold a college degree, must pass a certification examination given by the National Board for Respiratory Care. The Certified Respiratory Therapist credential is used as a prerequisite for state licensure in 49 states.

Many fields have no legal or government-mandated requirements for certification, yet employers still prefer industry certifications, and the absence of one can be a barrier to entry or advancement. In a recent poll of IT executives, 67% said their companies require industry certifications for jobs in cybersecurity. A separate survey found 80% of IT professionals say that certifications are useful for their careers. Demand for certifications stands despite the pandemic “slump.”

Though certified individuals may be rewarded through higher salaries, higher rates of hire, or faster promotion tracks, evaluating these criteria can be challenging. Institutions we have worked with use other strategies to evaluate the labor-market value of certifications, such as surveying alumni, industry advisory councils, or employers of recent graduates.

Todd Myers, Chair of the Department of Engineering Technology and Director for Workforce and Professional Development, Ohio University, illustrated examples during our manufacturing-specific workshop at Georgia Tech. “We knew the manufacturing specialist certification was a high-quality certification to embed with our engineering technology bachelor’s degree, in part due to our Industry Advisory Board and alumni’s review and recommendations. We even had an alum believe in the certification to the point where he provided funding to OU to cover the cost for our students’ certification exam fees for the last several years. Our faculty also have affirmed the quality. I hold the certification myself.”

Indicators of certification quality

Institutions and students can gauge the quality of a certification by understanding the credibility of the organization issuing the certification as well as the development and governance processes for that certification.

For example, certifying organizations should be independent. This helps to ensure impartiality and that there are no conflicts of interest in awarding or revoking certifications. There should be a clear firewall between individuals and processes involved in developing the certification exam and those supporting other organizational functions.

Institutions could seek out certification bodies that are transparent about which industry stakeholders were involved in the certification development and what “job task analyses” or validation studies were conducted. High-quality certifications will involve a representative sample of industry experts in the development, to include conducting both job tasks analyses and validations surveys. “A key attribute of a successful certification is the role of industry partners who need to be involved in the curation and creation of the curriculum behind the certification,” said Latha Ramchand, Provost at the University of Missouri and member of the CFP’s Board of Directors. “Having employers be a part of the design is critical to the success of the certification model.”

Other markers for quality include the stability of the awarding organization, type of exam proctoring, and certification revocation processes. A more comprehensive description of markers of certification quality is available here.

Seek out accredited certifications

Accreditation by a third-party such as the ANSI National Accreditation Board or National Commission of Certifying Agencies is another indicator of quality. Like accreditation of academic programs, third-party validation of certifications reflects that these certifications and the organization issuing the certification have been rigorously reviewed to a standard determined by experts. Third-party accreditation of certifications is a mark of distinction and only some 10% of all certifications are accredited.

Carl Bowman, Senior Director for Exam Services at CompTIA, a leading technology trade association, confirmed that “Accredited certifications are built and maintained with the employer in mind. Accredited certification bodies essentially issue a fair, unbiased, valid and reliable ‘endorsement’ to the professionals who achieve passing exam scores. As a result, certifications add value to a professional’s career path and can be trusted by academia and private industry at large.”

As the sector seek to support students in this era of disruption, combining degrees with quality certifications is a win for learners, institutions, and employers alike.

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