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Partnerships and Certificates Help Institutions Stay on Course

Engaging in partnerships and offering more certificates provides clearer pathways between higher education institutions and the work-world. Photo by Mark Hunter.

Despite the extent to which higher education is embedded in all things academic, many adult students return to campus with workforce development goals. Many institutions hold the belief that adult students should be segregated into distinct and separate programs when they show up with workforce development goals. This thinking is coupled with the assumption that degree-seeking students are less concerned about workforce development.

These practices raise many questions: What do we know about adult students who approach higher education with workforce development goals? What does industry need from higher education? And how can we ensure that higher education programs are industry-driven to prepare every student for work in their fields, especially in these times of economic challenge?

Higher Education and Workforce Development Goals

Adult students in higher education attend Continuing Education and Workforce Training units seeking to meet their workforce development goals. Here their goals are clear. Examining the greater population of 2011’s incoming students, it is revealed that 85.9% of freshmen report that one of their ‘very important’ college attendance goals is to be able to get a better job (HERI, 2012). Until 2006—before the current recession— the most popular reason to attend a college or university was “To learn more about things that interest me” held the top position (HERI, 2012). “To get training for a specific career” remains steady as the third most important reason to attend college.

Let’s stop for a moment and examine industry’s goals for higher learning—those of the work environments that engage a large portion of adult learners. In May 2012, Destiny Solutions—a provider of lifelong learning business solutions—released results of a research study of 200 North American employers. In an article published on, Tim Sosbe wrote that this study revealed “70% of employers felt their workers need continuous learning to keep pace with their professions and that some companies are offering up to $15,000 in individual education benefits” (Sosbe, 2012). This sounds exceptionally exciting, however the study goes on to show that “only 9% of employees have a training partnership with a college or university and only 16% of employers feel there’s an adequate availability of college programs that are tailored to their needs” (Sosbe, 2012). Sosbe (2012) reflects the situation clearly stating, “…so whether you’re affiliated with an enterprise or an academic institution, the numbers all add up to opportunity.”

Industry-driven Programs and Partnerships

Given this great opportunity what strategies are higher education institutions using to address these student goals? This article intends to offer a few thoughts and to illicit from readers other ideas and examples about how higher education can help all students to be more job-ready.

Certificate Programs

Community colleges have long offered a variety of certificate programs to both new and returning students. “Certificates are a homegrown American invention and are expanding rapidly in response to a wide range of educational and labor market demands” (Carnevale, et. al., 2012). Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce just released a new report, Certificates: Gateway to Gainful Employment and College Degrees, which notes that certificates make up 22% of all college awards, up from 6% in 1980. Certificate programs are “piecemeal, attainable, bite-sized education­al awards that can add substantially to postsecondary completion” (Carnevale, et. al., 2012).

Certificate programs of study have been identified as important to adult learners who are focused on workforce development and are concentrated in programs designed to prepare adult learners for specific workforce roles. Certificates “have the capacity to raise the country’s global educational standing by both encouraging further education and degree completion as well as by providing gainful employment” (Carnevale, et. al., 2012). These certificate programs have great potential to be an entrée into potential degree programs yet many adult learners are not engaged. “Even more high school graduates, particularly those from low-in­come families, have the academic potential to complete certificates but currently are not doing so.

“In an economy in which the lockstep march from school to work has been replaced by lifelong learning, certificates provide flex­ible learning modules that fit wherever necessary in an increas­ingly nonlinear education and training system. The lifelong value of certificates is evident in the age distribution of certificate earners” (Carnevale, et. al., 2012).

Should we be advising students to pursue certificate programs of study? Will these programs help with retention as students find benchmarks to success in these short term accomplishment? Should we be reporting the number of students who complete certificate programs as a measure of academic success as they provide the outcomes of gainful employment and often lead to a college degree? How do we ensure that higher education is aligned with industry needs? (Carnevale, et. al., 2012)


Forging partnerships between higher education and industry is a win-win situation: businesses can “strengthen workplace learning and skill sets, foster more loyalty among works and produce a marketable culture of continuous learning that will keep the talent pipeline flowing. Workers know that college-level training can’t really hurt, even if a time investment is required. Businesses know that rising tide lifts all boats, even if one occasionally sails to a different dock. And colleges know that a new supply of students enhances both the bottom line and reputation of a school, even if job training has traditionally been the purview of the HR department” (Sosbe, 2012).

What kind of partnerships have you built with business and industry? What kind of leadership and practice does it require for higher education? How have you learned to track industry demands so as to prepare and guide students? Movement in this area is a step in the right direction!

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Fain, P. (2012). Not just degrees. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Carnevale, A., Rose, S., Hanson, A. (2012). Certificates: Gateway to gainful employment and college degrees. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from

HERI (2012). Research Brief: The American Freshman – National Norms Fall 2011. Retrieved from

Sosbe, T. (2012). The College Connection.. Retrieved from

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