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Addressing the Increasing Need for Non-Credit Programming: The University and True Lifelong Education

The EvoLLLution | Addressing the Increasing Need for Non-Credit Programming: The University and True Lifelong Education
Non-credit offerings are increasingly important to individuals’ success in the labor market, but colleges and universities need to work more intentionally to create this wider array of access points.

The winds of change are sweeping higher education in a new direction. Where students used to engage with postsecondary institutions once during their lifetimes—and then continued to donate to that institution later in life—today’s colleges and universities must play a different role. Lifelong learning is the new reality, meaning institutions must adapt to ensure students can continue enrolling, re-skilling and re-tooling to stay competitive in the labor market over the course of their careers, and learning over the course of their lives. In this interview, Rovy Branon reflects on this new reality and shares his thoughts on how colleges and universities can begin the process of transforming to fit this new normal.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why has interest in developing and delivering non-credit programming grown so much in recent years?

Rovy Branon (RB): There are two main reasons that we are seeing increased demand for more non-credit programming. One reason is that employees need to constantly retool and the other is that employers are struggling to find enough educated workers to fill the growing number of high-skill jobs. The world is changing very quickly, and with it, the need for specialized skills in emerging fields is increasing. Here’s an example: right now, machine learning is one of the most sought after technical skills. It’s the part of artificial intelligence that entails learning from data, and it is used in every industry. Five years ago, it didn’t even exist. So, if you got your degree in 2013 or before, you may not have that knowledge. A certificate in machine learning updates your education.

The booming economy, especially in high technology hubs like where we are in Seattle at the University of Washington (UW) Continuum College, has created a very tight labor market for employers hiring college graduates. Those potential employees with specialized degrees, like computer science, are very difficult to recruit and retain. We find that employers are looking at entry-level jobs in areas that used to require a specialized degree and filling them with college graduates from other fields. We are increasingly being contacted by recruiting companies and large employers to ask how we can support broadening the labor pool through our certificate programs. A side benefit is that employers are recognizing that it is also an effective way to diversify their workforce and those broader perspectives help drive innovation.

It’s easy to find examples like that in high tech, but they’re happening across every industry. Technology is driving change in jobs, the economy and society. Both individuals and companies recognize that the need for formal education is increasing but that obtaining a new degree with every technological shift is not feasible or even desirable. Certificates are becoming an increasingly accepted part of the higher education ecosystem.

We’ve seen a record increase in the UW non-credit portfolio. We typically see between three and six percent growth annually. Last year we saw a 12-percent jump. Admittedly, part of that can be attributed to improvements in our marketing and outreach efforts to let people know these programs are available, but nothing is standing still anymore, and people are seeing the value in continuing their education.

Evo: What role do—and could—four-year universities play in the sub-baccalaureate space?

RB: UW Continuum College has two parts—one is to provide service to our degree partners on campus who have professional master’s degrees who primarily serve an adult audience. Most of these 110 programs are very targeted in professional areas and some do include certificates that count as credit toward a degree. Our non-credit portfolio includes 60 certificates. Most of our students have a bachelor’s degree and they don’t need another degree, but they do need training and certification on a specific skill to be eligible for a job.

Our non-credit courses are much narrower in terms of being focused toward a specific skill set. Because we have people with bachelor’s degrees, two-year degrees or no college degree at all enrolled in our programs we don’t use terms like “post-baccalaureate,” “post-grad,” or “grad-level” for our certificates unless they are very targeted and are administrated through The Graduate School.

Certificate programs provide high-value, non-credit learning experiences to help people find their dream jobs. It can also help improve job security. For people who are many years into their careers, a certificate can round out their CV, so they can compete successfully against more recent graduates who have arguably fresher skills. We’re long past the days when just a degree is enough to sustain you for a 30-year job. We’re seeing a shift to acknowledging workers need to see ongoing education and skills retooling as a requisite to success throughout their extended careers. Showing that you are a lifelong learner can mean all the difference to employers who might see a four-year degree from 30 years ago as a less relevant indicator of potential success.

Evo: How can universities evolve to play their ideal role in that category?

RB: In the book Built to Last, Collins and Porras note that great organizations avoid the “tyranny of the ‘or’.” We read and hear many reasoned arguments claiming that universities are either going to retain the great traditions of teaching and learning built on a foundation of the humanities, arts and sciences or we are going to become an outsource job training function for companies. As a social science and philosophy graduate, I can attest to the power of the literacies (not skills) that have served to open more than career options. My perspectives and understanding of the world around me, my appreciation of diversity and the power structures that enable and inhibit freedom, would not have happened in a certificate program. Some of these literacies I am only now beginning to appreciate more than 20 years after graduation. On the other hand, my doctorate in the field of instructional systems technology has been equally intellectually rewarding and provided me with many career options. Along the way I could not have remained current in such a fast-changing field without continued connections to formal and informal educational opportunities. Universities can and should play a critical function beyond the traditional undergraduate and graduate pathways.

Universities also need to adjust thinking to consider what many senior leaders in continuing education are now calling the 60-Year Curriculum. The 60-Year Curriculum is not just new wine in old bottles. The term lifelong learning has been around for decades but in many circles has become synonymous with “enrichment” learning. Additionally, in an era where a 12-year-old can post a YouTube video that helps me fix a computer problem, lifelong learning can also imply all the opportunities we have for informal learning. While a formal definition of the 60-year curriculum is still emerging, some basic tenets include:

  • A focus on formal higher education (but not just degrees);
  • An intentionality to the learning experience;
  • And that learning needs are personal but change over a lifetime.

At UW Continuum College, we have encapsulated this as a need to provide the right education for the right learner at the right time in life.

Universities will have to educate students that learning is not terminal and help them navigate the increasing options for learning. Our undergraduate and graduate schools have a responsibility to help students understand that career success depends on their willingness to keep their skills current and relevant. The key is to make sure that once students understand the expectation, they’re pursuing the right certificate program to help themselves get ahead. The explosion of options is confusing for students, and universities need to consider how to coach students across different legitimate options. What if I want to change careers or fields, who helps me? When do I need a certificate? Which certificate do I need? Is a degree more appropriate? Universities will have to help students navigate this increasingly complex landscape beyond selecting an undergraduate major or a graduate school program. At UW Continuum College, our newly created Enrollment Services team helps people navigate program options and select the one that’s best suited to help continuing education fit their goals and their life.

Evo: What is the process institutional leaders must go through to determine the best subject areas and credentialing levels for their non-credit offerings?

RB: We have advisory boards for all our business-centric certificates, and board members validate the curriculum. The non-credit programs allow us to respond to the boards’ input. If the board members tell us data analytics or Python programming is where industry demand is headed, then we’re able to blend that with input from faculty members to shape our curriculum. Those faculty help us validate that a certain skill is something employers are hiring for now or will be later. We’re seeing a real uptick as we respond to industry needs. Our most popular certificate program at UW is project management because it’s a transferable, in-demand skill for every industry, but especially high tech.

Revisiting the machine learning example and our flexible formats—the fact that we can make that certificate available to working professionals in a self-paced format helps us meet the need business leaders have identified and helps us provide access to a wider group of employees to build the skills that will help them advance their careers. Our job is to make sure that we are constantly seeking input from the right people, hiring top talent as instructors and serving both our students and the workforce.

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