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Shifting From Recognizing to Verifying Non-Credit Education: The Movement to Diplomas

The EvoLLLution | Shifting From Recognizing to Verifying Non-Credit Education: The Movement to Diplomas
Designing and offering creative and effective micro-credentials helps to put value back into non-credit education when it comes to workforce development.

Across the board, higher education leaders are being put under pressure to define the value of the credentials they offer students. Usually, this definition is expected to reflect some form of advantage in the labor market. At the New York University School of Professional Studies (NYU SPS), the certificates they were offering for completion of non-credit courses were not cutting it in the labor market, so they redesigned their non-credit credentials and launched a series of prescriptive diplomas. In this interview, Dennis Di Lorenzo reflects on the reasons why the SPS shifted to the diploma model and shares his thoughts on their unique value for employers, students and the school itself.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did NYU SPS decide to offer prescriptive diplomas rather than certificates?

Dennis Di Lorenzo (DDL): The certificate was truly a 20th-century construct in that it was a piece of paper that recognized a broad series of courses where students had light assessment. In the 21st century, the certificate has decreasing value to industry and in the job market because the learning outcomes can not be validated. When you have 30 courses you can choose from to get a certificate, companies are not sure what it tells them about the certificate-holder.

Of course, the courses behind the certificate are important. As such, we eliminated certificates and said, “We’re still going to offer this brand of open-enrollment education and we’re going to allow you to get recognized through digital badging. But if you want a credential from us, it needs to be more rigorous.”

That led us to the diploma. The diploma is prescriptive, it’s accelerated and it has rigorous learning assessment throughout the whole program, which means we can validate the acquisition of specific learning outcomes. The new diplomas have their own courses and are cohort-based. This is very different than the open-enrollment model. If NYU is going to put a stamp of approval on someone and put them out into the job market with a guarantee of a certain set of skills, we want to be sure that that is the case.

We also found with the certificate programs that, since anyone could take them regardless of past skills—whether they had a high school diploma, some college experience or a baccalaureate degree—it was creating confusion in the marketplace and setting false expectations for students. With the diploma model, we targeted various populations based on their past education. For individuals with a high school diploma, we introduced the basic diploma program (simply called “Diploma”). For individuals with some college experience we have “Professional Diplomas” and for those with bachelor’s degrees, we have “Advanced Diplomas” available.

After introducing these constructs, we chose industry areas that we knew would recognize people for their unique experiences. For those with nothing more than a high school education, we introduced Service Management and Restaurant Operations Diploma. For those with bachelor’s degrees, we introduced an Advanced Diploma in Energy Finance. This is because it’s more reasonable that students who have a baccalaureate degree could get an entry-level job in energy finance.

The other change we made in the creation of these diplomas is to focus on jobs rather than industries. Certificates, as I mentioned, were broad representations of the industries they reflected. For the diplomas, we went out to our program areas and said, “You have to justify the creation of this diploma by identifying five jobs that a particular student could enter into at the conclusion of the program.” We wanted direct alignment into specific jobs, rather than just direct alignment into the field. This meant that we could be clear about the learning outcomes that the program was building toward.

We believe in these credentials so much that we’re active in helping students find work. In the certificate model, while we stood behind the students that held certificates, we were not offering career development nor were we active in helping certificate holders find work with our industry partners. We only did that in the degree space. Because of the rigorous learning assessment that’s going on in the diplomas, we’re offering a career development component to all three levels, where students learn how to search for a job and, at the conclusion of the program, we open up the job board for them to help those graduates attain work. We don’t promise placement, but we certainly support them in their job search.

The diplomas are responding to a shift we noticed in New York City, where there is a high percentage of unemployed and underemployed people. We want to be a player in the job training space to serve this market and the diploma is all about acquisition of a job.

Evo: What was the “Eureka Moment” where you and your colleagues realized that the certificate model needed to change?

DDL: I wish I could say that it was a single moment in time, but we spent approximately three years repositioning the certificates. The Eureka Moment for me—not necessarily for the school because it took us a while to shift the culture away from the old model—was when I was sitting down with a group of our industry partners. Three of them said, “Explain to us what the certificate means in a 21st-century job market and tell us how that meets our need for short-term return on investment in offering tuition reimbursement for certificate programs.”

I honestly couldn’t answer the question.

I realized that I couldn’t answer the question because, realistically, certificates were built not to be accelerated, not to be prescriptive and to be very broad. Companies are putting a higher demand on education providers to give them explicit information about the skills students and employees are building toward. That was the moment for me that made it clear that we needed to revisit this old credential—especially since industry was seeing it as a credential while we were looking at them as a signifier that a student had taken six non-credit courses.

We also recognized, after conducting an analysis of how many students were actually seeking certificates after taking our courses, the percentage was in the single digits. Even the students themselves were voting that the certificate has less meaning in today’s labor market.

Evo: So the transition to diplomas marks the shift from “Certificates as marketing collateral” to “Diplomas as authenticator of knowledge”?

DDL: That’s exactly right. The certificate seemed more like a marketing construct that allowed people to recognize their engagement in professional development. The diploma is much more of a credential.

Evo: Since announcing the program in July, what has the response been like from students?

DDL: We got 50 students in our first cohort, which is exactly the number we were targeting. We’re seeing interest bump up significantly for the spring, now that we have been out in the market. A marketing cycle from July to end-of-September is not very long, so the fact that we even have 50 students was wonderful for the new diplomas.

On the other hand, there was a little market confusion in the beginning—as we knew there would be—because this is a major shift. However, we retained at least 80 percent of our population that was taking loose, open-enrollment courses with us in the fall, even after the shift. I had planned for some erosion, because I knew this was going to create confusion, but the reaction once people started to understand the shift has been fairly positive.

One of the things we have learned is that students want some level of recognition for these open-enrollment professional development courses, so we moved to course badging to respond to that demand. This allows students to demonstrate through social media that they are engaged in their own professional development.

Evo: What impact do you and your team hope this move has on the reputation of NYU’s School of Professional Studies?

DDL: The move to diplomas reinforces us as the school that is responsible for advancing workforce development in New York City.

We are a global school in the graduate space and we have opened up satellites in Shanghai and Tokyo. But we know that we are, for NYU, the school that is most closely connected to the New York City workforce.

Our hope is that we actually help students get jobs in a way that they don’t have to commit to a degree program and allow them to complete their education in a single, affordable semester. Non-credit gives us a way of creating job training programs that are affordable.

As the gap for certain classes widens in higher education, especially when it comes to the attainment of degrees, there needs to be a construct that allows students to bridge to a job. If this value proposition is met, the student should have a job within six months of completing this program.

We are hyper-aware that the relationship between government, industry and NYU SPS is very important to the advancement of this work. We already have a pilot program in place with the Mayor’s Office in construction management that will be launching in spring, where we will use the diploma model to create job training opportunities for unemployed people.

Evo: How are badges playing into the reinvention of credentialing education at SPS?

DDL: The badges are more of a recognition than a credential.

Any student who takes one of our open-enrollment courses will get a badge. If they take it exclusively for their own edification and they don’t want a grade, they will get a standard badge that will serve as a recognition of attendance and exposure to content. We will be offering a gold badge at the course level for students who want to obtain a grade as well.

If the student collects six badges—and it doesn’t matter which six courses they take—we will give them an “SPS Professional Development Badge,” which will show industry that this is a person that is committed to continuous learning in their profession. The badges, available on LinkedIn, will allow employers to click through and see the six courses that the individual took.

It’s important to clearly differentiate a student who simply goes to engage with content and a student who seeks out a grade. It’s also going to be clear that the grade is a reflection of a lighter assessment model than what will be typical from degree programs or diploma programs.

Evo: The Spectrum of Access at NYU SPS is really wide at this point, with so many different entry points for so many different students with different goals. How do prescriptive diplomas fit into the expanding marketplace of credentials?

DDL: I’m hoping these diplomas start to put value back into non-credit education. I believe that non-credit education has become undervalued by industry with the advent of applied professional master’s degree programs, to which only certain populations have access.

If we can begin to build value in this non-credit, affordable micro-credential, it will bring certain demographics back to the table in getting education to attain work.

Evo: How can creative credentialing help a college or university really stand out in today’s competitive higher education marketplace?

DDL: It’s less about the credential and more about the experience you’re providing. The credential is just the final recognition that someone achieved success in our program. But if the experience that we’re creating is positive, and we meet our value proposition, then industry is going to rise up and look to NYU SPS as a feeder to the job market. That’s really when we know that we’ve become a difference-maker.

Too often, universities create programs and then hope industry will recognize them. These programs are created in partnership with industry with very clear jobs in mind and this is more about feeding the talent pipeline than it is about getting a credential. Typically, universities don’t think about the career development component. The other differentiator in the diploma program is, from day one, students are engaged in a career-development program alongside their academic experience so that they are engaging in the job search and we are supporting them. We are also opening up job opportunities to them.

That’s the real differentiator here in the non-credit space.

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