Degree or Certificate: What’s Needed in Today’s Workforce?

When you live in cities like Boston and work in higher education, it’s impossible not to feel simultaneously a tremendous sense of history and some trepidation about the future.

The broad expanse of the Charles River outside my windows offers a sweeping, encompassing view of wealthy universities with 400-year old traditions, historically working-class colleges, and younger upstarts that are determined to serve the needs of a growing workforce.

Yet the demands of this workforce are changing. Immediately across the Charles is MIT and its biotech enclaves — one of America’s epicenters of innovation and creativity — where there are growing concerns about whether traditional forms of higher education will continue to meet the needs of a post-industrial workforce.

If degree-granting institutions fail to adapt to the economic engines that will power these expanding, dynamic, transformative hubs, what will become of the very institutions that fueled this economic growth?

Benefits of Liberal Arts Tradition are Many

The answer, in part, carries with it the baggage of accumulated history. Liberal arts colleges and universities, upon which most of American higher education is based, educate the productive citizens that build the new generations. A college degree continues to be among the best investments, paying a handsome return in higher salary and often job satisfaction.

America’s colleges educate broadly, providing access, choice, and a full range of employment options to build a strong economy and a stable democratic republic.

These are good reasons and excellent arguments for traditional liberal arts institutions. But the world is becoming a technologically complex place that has changed dramatically. The fax machine of the 1980s and the technologically-enhanced mobile phone of today seem at best distant cousins.

Today’s Innovation Requires Ongoing Education

Learning today happens differently — and at a different pace — than even a couple of decades ago. We sometimes seem overwhelmed by our capacity to gather information without fully understanding what is true, relevant, and meaningful.

Access to information is different from distilling and defining what is fact-based and useful.

It’s not surprising, then, that there is a continuing discussion about the value of certificate-based training. We are a long way from earlier college-based learning steeped in classical tradition that sought to train preachers and teachers. Yet we risk the danger of so narrowing our focus to meet specialized workforce needs that we lose sight of the greater good.

Higher education must be a lifelong, seamless pathway that prepares us to be useful — nimble, agile, and well-versed — to meet the technical challenges ahead.

Degree or Certificate: Not an Either/Or Proposition

It’s not an either/or proposition. With the growth of for-profit and online and in-residence certificate programs by non-profits, there is already some history behind us.

As the U.S. economy cranks to near full employment and immigration policies become more restrictive, the pool of trained, available workers will likely be unable to meet the demands of a growing economy, even if a recession looms ahead. What America must not do, however, is abandon the historic traditions that have built its workforce.

Higher Education Must Respond to Workforce Needs

This suggests that American higher education must find compelling, responsive ways to respond to the needs of employers. Three early suggestions arise:

  • Higher education must make a much better case for the liberal arts. The old arguments are correct, but they do not resonate fully with employers. We must demonstrate that the core strength of the liberal arts is that degree graduates are trained to think through an academic program that teaches them to write, articulate, apply quantitative methods, use technology, and work in a collaborative setting. The “product,” as defined in economic terms, is a well-educated citizen with the skills necessary to be agile and adaptable. Certificate programs only train for specialized skills.
  • Certificate programs must be fully incorporated into the academic program and mission. They must not be seen as efficient, low-cost cash cows that keep the rest of a creaking academic enterprise afloat. Instead, they should be value-added initiatives that are responsive to the public good, fully integrated into the institution’s mission, and flowing logically from its degree-granting foundation.
  • Colleges and universities must be responsive to the workforce. Certificate programs are a partnership between business and higher education often to meet “point in time” needs. But colleges and universities must be ready and open to being responsive to the growing demands of the workforce. Fundamentally, this mandates that they have a firm commitment across the curriculum to an assessible and verifiable liberal arts program tied to mission that defines and differentiates their graduates.

Business and Higher Ed Must Recognize Need for Both Types of Learning

There is a need in the American workforce for both degrees and certificates. It would be shortsighted for business leaders to embrace certificates without understanding and appreciating more fully the value of a comprehensive degree. It is equally critical that American higher education make a better, unapologetic case for why college degrees matter.

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