Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of significant discussion was the incongruity between reports that simultaneously stated that recent graduates were unable to find jobs and that employers could not find people with the skills they needed even for entry-level jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree. This paradox suggested a growing disconnect between student preparation through academics and the corporate world’s expectations in an age when technology and information increasingly converge. In an earlier article I emphasized that rather than try to provide disciplinary skills, a liberal education core, and workforce talent development through disparate and sometimes conflicting aspects of a student’s experience, we needed to integrate them into a single effort that ensures each student is not only prepared academically but also prepared to join (or develop, in the case of entrepreneurs) the workforce immediately and productively. As Peter McPherson aptly stated, “the debate between a broad education and employment readiness offers a false choice.”
Since March 2020, COVID-19 has changed the landscape immensely and perhaps forever. With the partial closure of campuses resulting in the transition to remote delivery, the discussion regarding the value, or lack thereof, of a degree has increased. Millions of people nationwide have lost employment, and many others have had to give up education plans due to financial distress, ill-health, inability to travel, and family, including caring for children and aged relatives. In addition, economic dislocations and the move to remote work has accelerated automation and further specialization, suggesting that the post-pandemic employment landscape will probably be more focused, in many occupational sectors, on newer and highly specific job skills, which could force out many more from the workforce, especially those in low-wage, non-college based, service jobs, unless they gain additional education in areas needed by employers. Simultaneously, there has been an increase in corporations such as Google, Amazon offering their own certifications equivalent to college degrees for the purposes of employment.
Irrespective of where one stands on the topic of academic preparation, it must be recognized that there is a growing disconnect between academia and the workforce. This in no way negates the value of academic preparation in key areas such as communication, problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking, and ethics. Rather, it suggests that academia needs to rapidly work on three aspects that have long been discussed but not addressed in any meaningful way
(a) the ambiguity of the academic transcript, which in itself shows little more than the attainment of a credential with the workforce skills often being difficult to decipher even though they are embedded therein,
(b) the devaluation of vocation-based training that could have been integrated with the disciplinary knowledge attained by college graduates except by the rare institution that enables true co-op education across all fields, and
(c) the perpetuation of the myth that higher ed’s sole role is academic preparation, that skills for success in the workforce are employers’ domain, and that institutions should not waste time and effort on integrating these at a high level. It should be emphasized that there are examples of some institutions that have succeeded in addressing one or all of these issues, but by and large, the synthesis of all that would prepare a student to be a learned citizen and an immediately productive and successful workforce participant has been elusive. These issues have led to a national discussion on certifications, certificates, badges, credentials, micro-credentials, and like aspects of denoting, and recognizing knowledge, skills, experiences, and abilities. While there are benefits to each, the current discussion is focused on a specific form: certifications.
In the context of the current discussion, certifications are credentials issued by non-academic entities such as industry/professional organizations or governmental bodies based on a formal assessment of well-defined skills and competencies. In most cases, these certifications are valid for specific periods of time and need constant updating through formal continuing education and/or reassessment to maintain relevance. In some cases, successfully completing a certification would also lead to licensing or qualifying for licensure. There are numerous examples of such certifications in areas such as supply chain management and logistics, accounting and financial management, program management, nursing and health sciences, IT including cybersecurity and cloud computing, surveying, civil and mechanical design, manufacturing, and automation. The key is in embedding and/or integrating them into degree programs so that students graduate with both academic knowledge and industry-valued credentials. Some of the key issues and suggestions for addressing them are discussed below:
Addressing differences in purpose
Successfully completing a degree program demonstrates the acquisition of academic knowledge and applied skills at both broad and specific levels. The certification, however, attests specifically to verified competency in a set of discrete skills that are of immediate applicability in the workforce. Often, the differences in purpose are cited as the reason for failing to integrate them into the course of study for the student. However, in many fields–nursing and education, for example–this has already been demonstrated to be possible and even required. Students can obtain associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in nursing through the completion of academic study. However, their ability to formally practice in the profession is predicated on licensure that is based on a separate examination at both levels (NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN) and is controlled at the state level Nurse Practice Acts that define the scope of practice. The degree in this case is distinct from the licensure, but the curriculum is not just focused on academic knowledge and clinical experience but also on preparing students to successfully pass their licensure exam. The close relationship between the academic community and the profession in this case has resulted in a merging of goals to enable certification, albeit separately from degree attainment. In a similar fashion, it would be possible for segments of industry and academia to create mechanisms and expectations for certification either during or immediately after completing, the degree. It is crucial that these be industry-led collaborations focused on areas of workforce need and used to create pipelines for stable employment. Industry’s ability to provide on-the-job training will be a crucial aspect of such partnerships’ success. Existing state-level partnerships, such as the KY FAME program in Kentucky, provide a basis for such developments. The success of such mechanisms in some fields may depend intrinsically on whether there is a true workforce demand that will result in a job for a graduating student with the certification, and the need for the certification as a pre-requisite for entry and progression in the career.
Inclusion in the curriculum
While it would be relatively easy to modify existing curricula to ensure that students are prepared for certification examinations, it would be difficult in others, especially when the material is more work-oriented or requires practical experience. Academia has shown itself to be adept at working with industry sectors in areas such as construction management and industrial engineering as well as in some areas related to cybersecurity to ensure that students receive a good blend of theory and practical knowledge to be immediately competitive and productive workers. Close collaboration between industry groups and university departments will be needed to ensure better alignment with the curriculum. However, appropriately using electives, capstone courses, and internships will allow students to choose between a traditional academic experience and one focused more on certification and the workforce. The use of capstone courses and internships would also account for the work experience and project completion requirements necessary to earn certain certifications. Three options that should be kept in mind are
(a) using industry experts team-teaching key courses with regular faculty to provide a mix of knowledge and expertise necessary for certification. It should be noted that the judicious use of appropriately qualified and experienced professionals would benefit students irrespective of certification requirements.
(b) Using online modules to provide students with the supplementary material they need for certification not otherwise covered in the curriculum, with additional guidance provided through professional organizations, and
(c) developing focused internships that not only meet curricular requirements but are focused on teaching the practical skills necessary for successful certification. All these measures will require close collaboration between academic departments and industry groups, but if they are truly focused on student success, (i.e. not just in degree attainment but also in gaining appropriate employment on graduation) there is no reason to believe that it would not be successful especially if championed by high-level personnel at the university and in the certifying organization–on an institutional basis, then on a regional basis. The appropriate selection of areas that have high workforce demand could serve as the necessary catalyst.
Cost of the certification
A commonly cited barrier to the inclusion of certifications within, or added to, academic degrees is the added cost of the certification, which could deter students already weighed down by the current cost of a degree. Several potential solutions exist to address this issue including:
(a) building the cost of the certification assessment into the cost of the degree. Since most certification examinations cost less than a credit hour at major public universities, this could, in some cases, be built into the cost of tuition through the use of a one-credit elective with the resulting preparation and certification counting as part of a degree requirement;
(b) being paid for through industry groups that would eventually hire these students more readily because of the added certification. One option here would be that the certification becomes a required part of a paid internship. Several large corporations from the aerospace, logistics, pharmaceutical/biotech, and financial sectors provide focused internships at key partner universities, with the internship often being counted towards graduation requirements. These could be modified to include certification costs as part of student support;
(c) being paid for, or largely subsidized, by state and federal funds focused on developing key workforce areas especially in areas of critical need. Some states provide special funding to higher education institutions to ensure increased numbers of degrees in specific areas of need. The funding formulae could be modified slightly to ensure that the cost of certification (for the first attempt at the examination) was mandated as use of these funds. Given the funds already in play, the cost of a single examination is unlikely to substantially affect institutions’ economies. In addition, states such as Florida already have funding programs, like the CAPE Act, that reimburse examination fees for students earning specific certifications in areas of workforce need.
Access to certification
The U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored Certification Finder lists over 5,700 active certifications. While some of these could be integrated into the curriculum of specific universities, others may be only of interest or applicability to a few students or a specific geographic region. Two specific difficulties need to be addressed:
(a) creating an easy-to-access information system whereby students can access the requirements for the certification associated with specific career options, and
(b) developing mechanisms with which students can avail of these certifications within their curricula even if they’re not offered at their institution. The former could be addressed by adopting a popular model in Europe wherein business chambers work with certifying organizations to serve as examination administrators locally/regionally and as a point of contact for information. This also provides a strong link between institutions and local employers who could, through the chamber, forecast areas of workforce demand linked to academic degrees and certifications. In some instances, local workforce development centers could serve the same purpose while also providing additional information and guidance to returning adult learners. The inclusion of university career development centers as a distributor of information about areas of potential certification, requirements, and advice on how to merge these with academic requirements would also help. Since it is unlikely that higher education would offer access to all certifications, it’s worth considering the study abroad program model wherein students wanting to pursue courses in countries or locations not offered by their own institution gain access to courses offered by other institutions through consortia. The formation of such consortia with “transfer” articulation would assist students immensely.
While some in academia are already working towards integrating and/or embedding certifications within degrees, the efforts by and large have been at the community college level. Aspects such as ranking and perceived reputation, funding to modify curricula, and concerns related to accreditation, as well as a certain level of reticence for “vocational” education have also slowed progress in this area. Academia is often accused of being slow to change, but the deliberative process has also served it well, ensuring that dramatic changes are not made as “knee-jerk” reactions or in response to low points in cyclical demand for disciplinary expertise. Further, it is critical that institutions of higher education focus on educating their students from a life perspective rather than based on transitionary demands from the corporate sector. Nonetheless, it is important that there is a closer partnership to both meet workforce needs and ensure that students earning degrees have economically viable careers after graduation. Focused funding for curricular development and establishing partnerships between higher ed and industry sectors from state and federal authorities can help accelerate moves in the desired direction. Many states are already providing funds through outcomes-based models or are considering doing so in the future. The provision of additional funds to institutions that move towards offering certifications could prove to be a catalyst without diminishing other areas of the knowledge enterprise. In addition, the consideration with appropriate modification of models such as those used at the Texas State Technical Colleges, where funding is tied to employment measures, may also be beneficial in key sectors where there is high workforce demand and additional funds could catalyze faster response from higher education. Funding from foundations focused on educational measures such as the Lumina Foundation and the Gates Foundation, with pilot programs associated with consortia of universities may also accelerate actions.
Higher ed in the past may well have treated transmitting academic knowledge and preparing graduates for the workforce, and/or as entrepreneurs, as separate aspects. However, we need to re-envision our social compact, with the communities we serve aligning and integrating these aspects to address changing trends and needs. Increasing the alignment of curricular structures to enable greater access to needed certifications in areas of high workforce demand during the course of a degree provides a potential to enhance employment assurance after graduation, addressing an area of significant concern. The collaborations needed for this will, as an aside, not just create closer links that benefit students but would also create stronger partnerships between institutions and the communities we serve.
Even as academia faces significant outside pressures, there are tremendous opportunities for higher ed–in an era of increasing convergence and disruption–to re-envision structures ensuring that it meets its mission, enabling students to be better served both in the short term (during their studies and immediately after graduation) and throughout their careers. While the idea of a degree is linked to specific workforce attributes may be antithetical to some in academia, especially traditionalists who believe that higher ed’s only currency should be knowledge for its own sake, and that attempts to combine workforce skills with academic learning diminish the value of knowledge, the reality is that in better-integrating degrees with certifications, higher ed will better serve its mission of not just providing knowledge but ensuring that it serves as a catalyst and driver for social mobility and improving the lives of students, their families, and the communities in which they reside and work.