Published on 2013/11/04

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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Readers Comments

Eugene Partnoy 2013/11/04 at 7:31 am

I don’t understand why institutions and accreditors haven’t linked up with various industry bodies to help students earn industry certifciations as part of degree programs already!

This is a great concept John!

    John DeLalla 2013/11/05 at 3:48 pm

    Eugene –
    Thanks for your comment!
    One school has been doing this for a while – and others are beginning to allow competency-based ‘courses’ for credit – really just IT certs counting for college credit it seems from students I met. Western Governors University has their industry certifications prominently on their degree plan page.

    SNHU (for-profit) and NAU (public) are also beginning the competency-based programs as well, and I expect industry certifications to be part of their programs.

Natasha Rubin 2013/11/04 at 10:59 am

I like this concept, but there are some process-based questions I have about the followthrough.

Would you bring industry-certified experts in to provide some of the certification-focused training? Further, do any changes need to be made to the degree program curriculum to ensure that you can fit the certification instruction in?

    John DeLalla 2013/11/05 at 3:42 pm

    Thanks for your comment and questions. Some detailed replies:

    1. Yes, we have certified experts speak to the classes, typically 3-4 speakers per 16 week semester. They typically speak for about an hour, and discuss the exam content, how it applies in real life, and other areas the instructor does not cover in class. These speakers are normally our non-credit ContEd instructors, so they are familiar with the campus, staff, etc. They are not paid for their guest speaking.

    2. A LOT of changes need to be made to the degree program to effectively add the certification aspect. From the financial aspect of exam costs, self-test software, extra books, etc to the curriculum updates. Our program is fairly informal in how to structure this, but in the near future I’d like see a formal arrangement to help alleviate the fiscal burden on the non-credit program and provide transparency in how the process works for students. Allowing students the chance to earn industry certifications with their degree is a huge benefit!

Jeff P 2013/11/04 at 3:51 pm

Great program!! I would also be interested in seeing feedback for the questions above, but this is a great concept and something I would love to learn more about.

Actually I have a question myself: is this something that appeals to both traditional and nontraditional students? Or are we looking exclusively at the 28+ crowd here?

    John DeLalla 2013/11/05 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks for your comment and question.
    I’ve found that the under 28 students do the certifications more often than the over 28 crowd, but that’s because the over 28 group already has one or more certifications. The over 28 students are back doing a degree now because they’ve realized experience and certifications aren’t enough to advance their career as they’d like. They need all three items to move up.
    The under 28 crowd also see the certification need, and do the certs because they already have done most of the preparation as part of their college class, so the exam cost is something they can handle and they knock out the cert as well.
    So this appeals to both the traditional and non-traditional students, with the traditional students taking more of the certs in conjunction with their degree program.

      Jeff P 2013/11/11 at 4:49 pm

      Thanks for responding to me on this John! I have one more question, then.

      If it’s mostly under-28s who see value in this, would institutions not benefit from integrating certifications into degree programs for the traditional, four-year degree students? The cost of the courses could be integrated into tuition and the curriculum could be integrated into the degree work.

      Certifications, as we all know, are critical for employers to look at a candidate and say “this guy could hit the ground running” so why not just make them mandatory?

      Is it an accreditor issue?

        Alicia Ramos 2013/11/11 at 10:01 pm

        It doesn’t make sense to pin this on accreditation. I think it’s a matter of universities looking to provide the lowest-cost degree possible without worrying about the learning outcomes gained/lost.

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