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10 Tips on Embedding Industry and Professional Certifications in Education Programs

The EvoLLLution | 10 Tips on Embedding Industry and Professional Certifications in Education Programs
Embedding industry certifications into education programs requires a great deal of collaboration between higher education and industry, but the benefits are shared by postsecondary institutions, employers and students alike.

More and more of today’s students stand to benefit from a promising new trend: certification-embedded education programs. These are partnerships between education institutions and industry and professional associations that stack industry certifications within education programs. The practice lets learners simultaneously obtain marketable industry certification(s) and education credentials such as degrees, diplomas and certificates. The certifications are not typically awarded for completing an education program based on students’ seat time and grades; rather, they’re awarded through assessment and validation that the learner has indeed achieved specific learning outcomes or attained a defined level of knowledge or skill relative to a given industry standard. Many certifying bodies (e.g., business and trade associations) are providing industry-validated skill standards and curricula that are aligned with the certification requirements to institutions to embed within education programs.

Is this growing practice a “win-win” for learners, employers, and other stakeholders in the credentialing marketplace? Lumina Foundation and the Connecting Credentials initiative joined forces in spring 2016 to conduct a survey designed to answer this question and several related questions:

  • Who is involved in these practices?
  • Why are these practices being implemented?
  • What are certification-embedded practices?
  • Where and how are they being implemented?
  • What are the benefits, outcomes and return on investment, especially for students, employers, and higher education institutions?

Here are 10 key takeaways from the survey’s 149 respondents, 80 percent of whom represented community and technical colleges with the remaining representing four-year institutions, employer groups and others:

1. Diverse industry sectors are involved in this practice.

Industry and professional certifications across at least 16 different industry sectors are being embedded within educational programs at high schools, community and technical colleges, and universities. At four-year institutions, partnerships to embed credentials are most prevalent in management and business, healthcare, public safety, and information technology programs. At two-year institutions, partnerships are most prevalent in manufacturing and advanced manufacturing, welding, information technology, and healthcare.

2. Industry certifications are embedded in diverse kinds and levels of education programs—from bachelor’s degree programs to dual-enrollment high school-community college programs.

The practice is especially prevalent in credit-bearing certificate and associate and applied associate degree programs in community and technical colleges, and in credit-bearing and non-credit certificate programs in four-year institutions.

3. Employer demands and funder requirements are key drivers.

The main driver of this practice is to enable educational institutions to respond to employer demands. Funding and policy deriving from grant requirements and federal and state policies are also important drivers. Respondents from community and technical colleges and employer associations consider embedding industry certifications to be especially relevant to their programs and partnerships; four-year institutions are less likely to see the practice as relevant.

4. Certain terms are commonly associated with embedding certifications.

The term most commonly associated with embedding industry and professional certifications within education is “stackable.” “Competency-based” and “embedded” are also used.

5. Certifications are embedded in multiple ways.

There is considerable variation in what educators mean when they say they embed credentials in programs of study. Embedded certifications are being delivered as both a required and optional component of education courses. Passing the certification exam may be a requirement of the course of study or as one of many assessments in the course. In other cases, the certification exam may be used as the capstone assessment of the course, with passage required for attainment of the college credential (e.g., certificate, degree).

6. Both vendor-specific and vendor-neutral certifications are being embedded.

Vendor-specific certifications are based on skill standards associated with a specific company or vendor such as Microsoft and Snap-on Tools. Vendor-neutral certifications include certifications such as the CompTIA suite of certifications in information technology that are not tied to a specific company. The practice of embedding vendor-specific certifications is more prevalent in community and technical colleges than four-year institutions.

7. Certification exams are paid for in multiple ways.

For the most part, the cost of taking industry certification exams is borne by the student. At some institutions, the cost is included as part of the tuition and fees for the course. Scholarships, Pell grants and grant funds also are used. In some programs, employers pay the fee for employees who are students in education programs.

8. Cost, employer relevance, and need for industry/education partnerships are the top three challenges to embedding industry and professional certifications in education.

The top challenges study respondents identified were:

(a) Certifications can be costly for students to pursue;

(b) Employers in our region don’t require or place a high value on certifications; and

(c) Ongoing communication and reassessment, in partnership between industry and education, is required.

9. Combining academic and industry credentials, curriculum alignment with industry needs, and assurance to employers about readiness of students are the top three benefits to embedding industry certifications in education.

The top benefits respondents identified were:

(a) Students can complete both academic credential and industry and professional-recognized certification;

(b) Colleges’ and universities’ curricula remain up-to-date with industry standards; and

(c) Employers get students trained to their specifications or their various tools.

10. There is little follow up on outcomes.

Education institutions typically track whether students pass certification exams. However, few collect employment data on students who have completed programs and certifications. Fewer institutions get feedback from employers on the job-readiness of former students, and fewer still obtain information on whether employers must provide training for educational institutions that issue the credential (e.g., to improve teaching of the industry-required portion of the curriculum).

Though not without challenges, partnerships among more than 16 different industry sectors and education institutions are offering a unique opportunity for learners to simultaneously obtain valuable industry certifications and education credentials. This appears to be an important win-win for learners, employers, and other stakeholders in the credentialing marketplace.

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The Report on Phase I Study: Embedding Industry and Professional Certifications within Higher Education may be viewed here. A Phase II study is underway to interview several organizations, including community and technical colleges, four-year institutions, employer-based programs/partnerships, and high school-to-college partnerships to explore in-depth questions that could not be answered in a survey instrument.

The study researchers were:

Holly Zanville | Strategy Director, Lumina Foundation

Kelly Porter | Former Strategic Impact and Learning Officer, Lumina Foundation

Evelyn Ganzglass | Co-Director of Connecting Credentials, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce

112  co-sponsoring organizations in the Connecting Credentials initiative supported by Lumina Foundation and managed by the Corporaiton for a Skilled Workforce are calling for ways to transform our nation’s highly diverse and fragmented credentialing system into one that is student-centered and learning-based. Change is needed for several reasons: to ensure educational quality; increase access; better align the work of industry, education and certification/licensure agencies; multiply the benefits of increased attainment; reduce social inequity; and foster individual progress that results in market-valued credentials.

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