Embedding certifications in degrees is gaining ground, but will the practice go mainstream?
Momentum is building beyond community colleges for offering industry credentials through the curriculum, but a lack of standardization and uptake present challenges.
When Oscar Eliecer Diaz Cordovez immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba five years ago, he had a few college credits and no clear career path.
He found work on the floor of a manufacturing plant, but the job was physically demanding, and the pay was low. To make ends meet, he worked at a restaurant on the weekends.
Then he heard about computer networking, a well-paying career with a low barrier to entry and opportunities for advancement. By "stacking" one industry certification on top of another, he could climb the career ladder quickly — and inexpensively.
So in 2017, he enrolled in a network support services program at Florida's Atlantic Technical College. It took him just six months to earn the first four certifications and a technical degree. Last spring, he transferred to Broward College, where he is working toward an associate degree in network technology systems and preparing to take the tests for four more certifications. In November, he got a job as a junior network engineer at an information technology firm.
In five years, he hopes to have a bachelor's degree from Broward College and a job as a senior network engineer making more than $100,000 a year. He will have paid nothing beyond community college tuition and fees because Broward covers its students' exam costs.
The program Diaz Cordovez enrolled in is one of more than 40 associate and bachelor's programs at Broward College that embed industry credentials in an academic course of study. The practice, which has a long history in blue-collar fields like automotive technology and welding, has spread in recent years to white-collar sectors like health care and IT, thanks in part to an infusion of federal funds.
Up until now, most of the "embedding" has occurred at community and technical colleges. That's starting to change, as four-year colleges come under increasing pressure to show they're preparing students for the workforce.
This year, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) will take part in a series of meetings aimed at strengthening ties between four-year colleges and credentialing bodies and developing a plan to test embedding at the baccalaureate level.
Community colleges that have embraced embedding say it gives their graduates an edge in a competitive job market and helps keep their curriculum current. Employers say it reduces their training costs.
Yet even the most ardent advocates of embedding acknowledge that expanding it to four-year colleges, and scaling it across institutions, won't be easy. Faculty at four-year colleges are less accustomed to collaborating with industry than are their community college peers, and they tend to view their mission as broader than workforce prep. Some professors will see changes to the curricula as teaching for an industry-sponsored test.
Then there is the cost. Exam fees range from $60 for a basic OSHA safety certification to more than $700 for some cybersecurity certifications, according to New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that issued a report on embedding last year. In most states, colleges will have to either cover the cost or ask students to pay more — and risk fueling public resentment over rising tuition.
The biggest hurdle, however, is a lack of evidence that embedding works. Many programs that offer certifications don't even know if their students passed the exam, let alone whether they were more likely to get a job or earn more than their peers who don't have certifications. Without evidence of a return on investment, many colleges will hesitate to invest in new programs, particularly in nontraditional fields, advocates say.
Recognizing this, the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation oriented around workforce development, is investing in efforts to better track outcomes for certification recipients. When complete, the new data should help colleges choose which certifications to offer and help students decide which programs to pursue.
For now, though, the embedding landscape consists mostly of "islands of innovation, often with little connection to one another or even to other programs in their own college or university," according to the New America report.
Giving students 'a leg up'
Broward College, with its wide range of certifications in fields that include marine engineering and risk management and insurance, is an exception to this rule. Last year, its students earned close to 1,350 certifications.
Broward, like many community colleges, has offered a handful of certifications for many years. It started adding them to more programs in 2012 when the college received the first of three grants under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant program. (TAACCCT, which expired last year, provided nearly $2 billion to public community colleges to prepare adults for high-wage, high-skill employment.)
But the biggest game changer came in 2014, the New America report explains, when Florida began reimbursing public colleges up to $1,000 per exam for students who earn certifications. Broward's then-president made certification attainment an institutional priority, even including it in the strategic plan, and offered to split the state reimbursement with department heads who created new programs.
Renato Cortez, who was hired by Broward in 2014 to be a full-time certification specialist, said leaders saw embedding as "a way to give a leg up to our students and differentiate us as a school."
Still, not everyone embraced the expansion at first, Cortez said, adding that some faculty, particularly in IT fields, questioned the need for certifications. They argued that employers weren't demanding them. However, the college president's support helped change their minds, Cortez said.
"When you can search for a car or a hotel more easily than you can compare educational options, that's not good."
Executive director, Credential Engine
Skepticism about the value of embedding has been even more pronounced at four-year colleges, according to a 2017 survey by the Lumina Foundation. More than two-thirds of respondents from four-year colleges said embedding wasn't "relevant" to their work, and half said they were too narrow or skills-based to be useful to students. None of the respondents from community colleges said embedding was irrelevant.
That difference is likely due to the distinct missions of two- and four-year colleges. While community colleges are occupationally oriented, four-year colleges favor "a comprehensive exploration of a topic of study, so (students) can approach the unknowns of the future with an ability to critically analyze and make decisions," said Arthur Thomas, associate dean for academic affairs at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies (iSchool).
Yet four-year colleges also face complaints from employers and students that comprehensive courses aren't teaching the skills graduates will need in the workforce.
Syracuse's iSchool knows something of this dilemma. It used to offer semester-long courses that explicitly prepared students to sit for certification exams in project management. But it changed its approach in 2011, separating test prep into optional, $150 seminars.
Thomas said some faculty wanted the course to remain broader and were wary of promoting a particular corporate product. He said the new approach gives students foundational knowledge that will allow them to seek several different certifications. Five percent of students who take project management courses at the school also take the optional seminars, he noted.
Standards are needed
There's no official tally of the number of certifications offered nationwide, but Credential Engine, a nonprofit that seeks to bring transparency to the credentials market, estimates there are roughly 6,700. No one knows how many colleges offer embedded credentials, or which programs are producing the most graduates.
Part of the problem is inconsistent terminology. In Lumina's survey, more than three-quarters of respondents referred to credentials wrapped into academic programs as "stackable" while nearly 60% called them "competency-based." Just over half used the term "embedded." (Some respondents picked multiple terms.)
"There wasn't even agreement on what you call these things," said Holly Zanville, one of the report's authors and a senior advisor at Lumina. "Would a college even know they're doing it if they don't have a standard word for it?"
While some colleges have agreements with certifiers and test providers to get exam scores and pass rates, others rely on student surveys. Most colleges collect employment data for at least some of their programs and say certifications improved labor market outcomes, but the Lumina survey did not ask for disaggregated data to back up those claims.
Even Broward can't say for sure if its big bet on credentials is paying off. The college tracks job postings to see which certifications are the most sought-after in its market and gets aggregate employment and earnings information for its graduates from the state. But it still doesn't know whether students with certifications fare better than those without them.
Several organizations are trying to bring more transparency to the certification marketplace. Credential Engine, which has been building a national registry of credentials since 2017, has created a tool that lets students compare non-degree credentials on cost and time-to-completion, among other variables. The organization plans to add information on wages and employer demand, so students can determine whether a certification would be a better investment than a boot camp or an apprenticeship, for example.
"When you can search for a car or a hotel more easily than you can compare educational options, that's not good," said Scott Cheney, Credential Engine's executive director.
Meanwhile, the National Student Clearinghouse is working with colleges and the manufacturing industry to track certification-seekers into the workforce. That will give them a better idea of which programs are producing the most credentials and which credentials give students the biggest salary boost.
"We want to be able to answer that ROI question — what are the most valuable credentials to have — because right now we don't know," said Zanville, whose foundation is backing the Clearinghouse's and Credential Engine's efforts.
But Diaz Cordovez, who studied medicine in Cuba and once dreamed of being a doctor, is confident his investment will pay off.
"The main reason why I chose this career was the money I realized I can make after a few years of study and experience," he said. "I would have liked to study medicine, but it was me and my wife only, no money, working for minimum wage. I was looking for a respectable way to get out of that hole."