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5 Best Practices to Expand the Impact of Alternative Credential Programs

The EvoLLLution | 5 Best Practices to Expand the Impact of Alternative Credential Programs
The demand and need for certificate programming is growing constantly, so it’s essential for higher education to adopt best practices designed to meet the needs of non-traditional learners while actively building the body of research on how they can best serve them.

I have been working in higher education for over a decade, focusing on non-degree programs for about half of that time. When I transitioned to the non-degree side, I collected anecdotal evidence in support of these programs and the common traits of effective program design. However, when I began my dissertation study aimed at researching the effectiveness, impact and accessibility of certificate programs for non-traditional students, I discovered there were very few published studies to provide the foundation to my research. Much information exists regarding what types of careers are available without degrees, but not enough research exists on the quality of alternative training programs designed to prepare people for these careers.

Certificate programs and other alternative credential programs that offer students pathways to a career can be good alternatives to traditional bachelor’s degree programs. They are typically short training programs lasting no more than one or two years, and they provide students with skills in a specific field. Although certificate programs are ubiquitous, research in the area of alternative credentials, like certificate programs, is lacking. As a field of practice, it is important that we make a deliberate effort to expand research and theory supporting these programs.

The impact and importance of such programs will be elevated if we can build a body of literature around program design and effectiveness. I implore professionals to research alternative credential programs and contribute to the body of theory and literature, so we can bring these programs into the light and move the profession forward.

As a first step, I offer up my recommendations for general practice in program design. My specific study (available here) was a program evaluation for an academic credit paralegal studies program. I surveyed graduates of the program and conducted a focus group with program alumni. While it is true that my evaluative study provided feedback about a specific program, I do believe there are best practices to be gleaned from the data. You, the reader, will determine the true applicability of these recommendations, and some of the findings will be transferable while others will seem like common sense.

Presented here are the key program features non-traditional students identified as making them successful. Other programs may be able to incorporate these elements to see improved student outcomes.

1. Faculty Support

It is recommended that programs hire and train faculty who view students as individuals. Faculty should be encouraged to mentor and care for students based on their individual needs. It is imperative that faculty recognize and acknowledge the shifting priorities of non-traditional students and understand that sometimes their responsibilities outside the classroom will take precedence. An effective certificate program must hire faculty who will make accommodations for non-traditional students to help them succeed.

2. Flexible Format

It is recommended that classes designed for non-traditional students be offered at multiple locations, in different modalities, and in the evening. Additionally, an effective program design should allow for students to take courses out of sequence or stop-out for a term. Non-traditional students with changing priorities will benefit from a flexible program design.

3. Career Assistance

It is recommended that certificate programs provide some form of career counseling or job search assistance. Students join certificate programs with the ultimate goal of finding a job, and they want to know that their institution shares that goal. An effective program design should incorporate wrap-around services like career counseling and resume writing to best serve non-traditional students.

4. Networking Opportunities

It is recommended that certificate programs provide deliberate opportunities for their students to network to build social. A further recommendation is that program managers be sensitive to the need for non-traditional students and those from underserved populations to connect with individuals they relate to. For this reason, it is recommended that networking opportunities incorporate as broad an audience as possible, thus increasing all students’ ability to form relationships–an example would be including both current students and program alumni in networking events.

5. Program Outreach and Recruitment

It is recommended that certificate programs proactively target an audience who meets the minimum admittance qualifications. Many students and members of the public are unfamiliar with certificate programs and may be unaware that they exist. More effort should be paid to recruiting students before they get a bachelor’s degree they may not want or need.

There is much still to be studied regarding non-traditional students and how programs can best be designed to meet their needs. To begin with, I would be remiss if I did not draw attention to the fact that research exists on the problem of students dropping out of college, the lack of middle-skilled workers to fill well-paying jobs and, albeit sparse, the value of certificate programs.

My study is one example of how these disparate areas of research can be brought together. While researchers studying higher education completion rates and those looking at economic development trends may not see a connection between their areas of expertise, it is clear to me as a scholar-practitioner working in this field that certificate programs are a bridge between these areas. I encourage more scholar-practitioners to explore ways in which these and other unique areas of research can be combined to present solutions to the problems facing our students.

As learning opportunities become more customizable, and students continue to be lifelong learners who revisit formal education many times in their adult lives, designing programs for the unique needs of non-traditional students will continue to be more and more important. The more we learn about our students’ expectations and experiences, the more we can adapt and transform our certificate programs to meet the needs of our students today and the students yet to come.

We need more research on pedagogies that support learning in certificate programs, and more research on the learning styles of non-traditional students. Research in these areas will improve program design and pedagogy. Additionally, we need more research on the persistence rate of non-traditional students in certificate programs to fully understand how well we are serving our students. Furthermore, research is needed on the wrap-around services, program infrastructure, and support systems needed to boost the success of non-traditional students. By building literature around the impact and design of certificate programs, coupled with expanded best practice research, we can begin to elevate this field and showcase the transformative power of professional and continuing education.