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Adding Industry Certifications to Degrees

Adding Industry Certifications to Degrees
Uniting for-credit degree programming with non-credit industry certifications can be a massive benefit for students looking to gain employment after graduation.
Professional and technical certifications are commonly accepted as validation of focused skill set, while college degrees are more universal (hence the name “university”) in nature. Traditional academic programs have majors and minors to help sharpen a graduate’s skills in certain areas. Yet professional and industry certifications are commonly found only in continuing education (CE) programs, not academic colleges, within the academy.

Employers are increasingly looking towards certifications as requirements for employment, as the U.S. Department of Defense did in 2008 by requiring particular certifications for different levels of computer network access. How can a university offer both certifications and degrees, allowing their students to both graduate and quickly become employed?

Our institution, which is located adjacent to a large military base with a number of cyber-based functions, has been quietly doing non-credit, industry certifications in conjunction with for-credit courses for about eight years, mainly in IT and cyber security. We are able to do this because one person runs both the non-credit CE program and the degree program; however this is feasible in other programs.

Here is how we structure a combined degree/industry certification course:

  • ‘Normal’ three-credit college class using a standard college textbook and normal tuition rate (no extra fees).
  • Adding content throughout the semester related to the certification exam (only 10 minutes per class, with classes once a week in a16-week semester).
  • Covering academic theory, history, etc. in the class, but using current events as examples relating to exam concepts.
  • Extensive, optional, guided, computer lab time being available OUTSIDE of class time for practice/experience.
  • Offering an opt-out for the final exam, with an automatic 100 per cent, if a student passes the industry certification exam and shows proof from the vendor.

The student pays for their own certification test; the price can range from $90-$400 depending on the exam. We are the academic partners of a few vendors through our CE program, allowing students to get discounted certification test vouchers of at least 50 percent — but often closer to 80 percent — off public rates. Cisco, CompTIA, Oracle, Microsoft, VMWare, EC Council and other major technology employers have this type of program.

In the eight years of blending degrees with certifications, I’ve found almost all students enter the program wanting to be certified by an industry vendor. At the end of the semester, about a third of students actually follow through. It requires extra time, effort and around $100 on the part of the student. Ironically, it’s the certified students that find jobs before or right after graduation, while the non-certified ones come back asking for help, leads and other career support. When students earn the certifications, they get hired. Despite telling this story at the beginning of each semester, the pattern continues.

In terms of oversight and dollars, the non-credit CE program pays the academic partnership fee runs the certification test center. The degree program does the teaching, with the faculty members doing extra work (if they desire, and all but one do) to help prepare students for the certification.

In the end it is almost as though the CE program subsidizes the degree program. There is no direct fund transfer between the two programs and no extra fees paid directly by the student to the university.

I hope this helps provide an example of how an institution can marry for-credit degree programming with non-credit industry certifications. Ultimately, offering these ‘bolt-on’ options really benefit our students.

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