Published on 2020/09/01

The Fastest, Most Scalable Path to Work-Readiness for College Students

Offering students the opportunity to pair their bachelor’s degree with an industry-recognized credential can make them more appealing to employers and improve their postsecondary experience.

The lack of work readiness among graduates may be the single biggest critique of U.S. higher education. Sure, the rising cost of tuition is near the top of the list, too, but cost is tied with value in an education consumer’s mindset. And value is about the perceived “relevance” of a college education. For graduates, the sense that higher education was “worth the cost” is driven primarily by feeling that they left well-prepared for the workplace. There are many dimensions to developing a work-ready graduate but none more quickly doable and scalable than ensuring that every student receives a “credegree.”

A credegree is a portmanteau of the words credential and degree. Its purpose is simple and clear: to enable students to graduate with both a bachelor’s degree and a highly valued industry-recognized credential. It allows higher education to embrace “work-readiness, rightly understood.” The silly and crippling either/or cross-campus debates that pit the liberal arts against vocational training must end. It creates a false dichotomy that prevents us from delivering higher education’s full value proposition. Pivoting quickly to a both/and version of higher education is the best path to ensuring its long-term value proposition. To be both broadly educated and specifically skilled is a graduate’s ideal outcome.

Credegrees alone don’t solve this problem, but they are undoubtedly the quickest and most scalable strategy a university can adopt to develop broadly educated and specifically skilled graduates. Producing “triple threats” as I’ve written previously, is the ideal model. It includes multiple semester-long projects and internships or other applied work experiences along with an industry-recognized credential. 

Developing courses that involve semester-long project work requires the collaboration of individual faculty and academic departments. It’s a strategy that universities should certainly pursue, but it’s one that takes time to fully develop. As the Gallup-Purdue Index has shown, less than one-third of graduates worked on a long-term project that took a semester or more to complete, but those who did were twice as likely to be engaged in their work later in life. In short, there’s a ton of room for improvement and good reason to ensure more students complete long-term projects. But it will take more of multi-year initiative to implement it.

Internships, like long-term projects, are incredibly effective. Again, less than one-third of graduates report having a job or internship at which they were able to apply what they learned in the classroom, but those who did were also twice as likely to be engaged in their work later in life. They are also much more likely to have a good job waiting for them upon graduation. But as we all know, finding internships for every student on campus is a tall order. Only a few institutions in all of higher education have solved for this; Northeastern, Drexel and the handful of other co-op institutions can serve as examples. Yes, it’s possible to ensure every student has a valuable applied work experience, but it requires a significant investment of time and serious intention. Like long-term projects, internships should be a higher education staple experience, but reaching the required scale of all students (not just a few) is also a multi-year initiative.

Providing an opportunity for students to add an industry-recognized credential to their degree can be implemented for all students in a single academic cycle. This is work that I’ve been leading at Kaplan this past year by partnering with universities to provide students with access to over 200 industry-recognized credential training courses. Similar to the idea of a student choosing a major and minor, for example, students choose a degree and a credential to pursue.  Many of these credentials can be achieved in a matter of weeks – not months or years. Including opportunities for students to pursue (that can almost all be done entirely online) is an exercise in providing a menu of possibilities and encouraging students to take them during the nooks and crannies of their academic schedules (J-terms or winter breaks, during the summer, or included as part of a relevant semester-long course). And at an average cost of about $700 per student, it may offer the highest return on educational investment (ROEI) of just about anything.

In the research I conducted on this concept last year, we asked U.S. adults to imagine themselves as hiring managers. Given no other information about a graduate, we asked them which of the following they would be most likely to hire. The first option was a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English. The second was a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. The third was a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English who also had an industry-recognized designation in cybersecurity. U.S. adults are four times more likely to say they’d hire an English major with a credential over an English major with no credential, and they are nearly three times more likely to say they’d hire an English major with a credential over a STEM major in fast-growing cybersecurity. To say that credegrees are a major boost to graduates’ marketability is an understatement. And the big bonus: they also prove that Americans value the liberal arts if they can see tangible evidence that the specific skills gained along with a broad education are applied. It’s a higher education imperative to ensure graduates are both broadly educated and specifically skilled. And there’s no faster more scalable path to that goal than through credegree initiatives.        

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