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One million fewer students are enrolled in higher education in the U.S. than before the pandemic began. As Nathan M. Greenfield writes in University World News, “Even though much of America’s economy opened up in 2021, America’s university-aged cohort continued to stay away from college and university in record numbers. The number of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions fell 2.7% in 2021, a figure greater than the previous year’s decline of 2.5%. Compared with 2019, there are almost one million fewer students in America’s colleges and universities.”

With fewer students, many universities are grappling with lower overall tuition revenue to sustain their operations. In part as a result of the decline in enrollments and associated revenue, many institutions are scrambling to launch alternative credentials to tap the massive shift of adult learners in the workforce, including those who are part of the “great resignation” and have quit their jobs during the pandemic.

As John Steele of Suitable writes, the alternative credential movement accelerated through the advent of MOOCs over the past decade. Reaching professionals online, the MOOCs provided credentials, including badges, that served those seeking to advance their careers.

The trend toward smaller-than-degree credentials has taken off. Compared to degrees, they are valued for their timeliness, relatively low cost and lesser time investment. The return on investment is apparent in short order, as certificate holders claim enhanced skills and abilities worthy of greater salaries and responsibilities.

Now there are literally thousands of alternative certificate programs, and they are growing daily. Most recently, Arizona State University announced ambitious plans to reach 100 million learners by 2030 through its new online global management and entrepreneurship certificate program. Natalie Schwartz writes in Higher Ed Dive, “The certificate program, which will be translated into 40 languages, will be offered through Arizona State’s Thunderbird School of Global Management. An initial donation of $25 million is helping to fund the program, which will make the certificates free to learners through full scholarships. Learners will receive a badge after completing each of five graduate-level courses in the program. Completion of all the courses leads to a certificate granting 15 credit hours that can be applied to degrees at Thunderbird.”

While it may seem relatively easy to throw together a few classes that have identifiable market-driven skills and abilities as learning outcomes, in practice creating a successful certificate program involves much more. There is a temptation to merely scan the available demographic data on projected job growth and student interest to drive the design and launch of a new certificate program. However, the most important link in the process is to reach out to business, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and industry leaders to create a long-term, continuing, working collaboration on identifying the needed skills, knowledge and abilities.

The keys to developing a successful online certificate program include:

  1. Know your audience. Get to know the prospective students. These may well be those already employed in the field who are seeking career advancement. Your rolls of alums may offer a good starting point to seek out representative samples of these prospective learners. Identify their goals, aspirations and expectations.
  2. Know the employers. Make sure you include the obvious ones in business and industry, as well as the less obvious ones, including those in government agencies, NGOs and education at all levels. The C-suite and HR leaders at regional and national companies and organizations may be best positioned to predict the specific knowledge, skills and abilities they will be seeking in the coming couple of years.
  3. Understand the growth/decline potential. Get to know both the optimistic and the pessimistic sides of predictions for the fields in which your certificate holders will compete.
  4. Update and revise content every year. Engage the professionals at least a couple of times a year to pick up on new developments and emerging trends that your certificate should address.
  5. Teach to the future not the present or past. This is especially important in certificates. Too often we in higher education have been guilty of relying too heavily on textbooks that are already out of date when they are first published. We tap the way things were when we were working in the field, not the way things will be in six months or a year. This means that courses must be updated once or twice every year, without exception.
  6. Design and market to a tightly defined underserved or unserved audience. You can leave room for others who may join your cohorts, but make certain you satisfy your core demographic group very well.
  7. Carefully follow learning initiatives, such as the Google Career Certificates program for effective practices in teaching as well as placing your certificate completers.
  8. Recognize that the pedagogy of teaching a short sequence of classes for a certificate is far different from a long-term degree program. The learners come to you with differing assumptions, defined desired outcomes and context.

Think of the certificate curriculum as existing in an ever-changing environment. It is not a static set of learning outcomes. Your collaboration with professionals in the field is the anchor for your success in this field. Designing courses for these learners is different without the long list of prerequisites and shared gen ed of degree programs. Artificial intelligence, virtual environments and the changing economy will impact what and how you should teach.

UPCEA offers a free curated reading list on alternative credentials with one item posted every day. It may be useful as you seek to keep up with the developments in this field.

Who is leading the certification effort at your institution? As enrollments shift from freshman-centric to professional-oriented, how can you help? It is time for a certificate in your field?

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