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Rick Seltzer reports in Higher Ed Dive that a recent Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded study of 18- to 30-year-olds without a college degree found “Respondents prioritized their own emotional, mental and financial health more frequently than a college education. Researchers asked them about their personal goals over the next few years. Almost nine in 10 respondents, 87%, said good mental and emotional health was either important or their top priority, making it the most popular answer. A close second was financial stability, cited by 85%, and in third place was earning more money, at 80%.”

A new survey by Coursera shows that most employers and students view short-term industry certificates as a worthwhile addition to a college degree and a strong positive in the hiring and job-seeking process. Former Missouri State University president Michael T. Nietzel, writing in Forbes, reports, “Among the U. S students surveyed, 81% believed that micro-credentials would help them succeed in their job, and 74% said the presence of relevant micro-credentials would influence their choice of a degree program at their university.”

Colleges and universities must respond to the needs, desires and demands of our clientele—the students, families and employers who pay for and consume our learning products. The truth is that the desired workforce characteristics are changing. The last century’s model of employees working many years, even decades, at one job for one employer is long gone. As such, one degree will not sustain a lifetime of work credentials. A continuing flow of upskilling and reskilling will be required for lifelong success.

The need is not to abandon the baccalaureate or graduate degrees. Rather, it is to provide affordable, effective ways for more students to build a scaffolding of knowledge and skills to successfully launch rewarding careers in a constantly shifting economy. Further, it is to build paths for continuous improvement and advancement for those already in the workforce.

Today, in large part because of the advances in technology, needed labor skills change rapidly from year to year. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report released last month shows the median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.1 years in January 2022. For men, it was 4.3 years; for women it was 3.9 years. That means that nearly as soon as workers begin a new job, they are looking, and preparing, for the next job. That means they are also in the market for relevant certificates that document their readiness to successfully take the next step in their careers.

Not to trivialize these changes in any way, as a recreational golfer I cannot help but see an analogy to the game. Despite those captivating vistas of 500-yard fairways and the soaring tee shots of the pros, to my mind (and ability), golf is much more of a short game. The short game is focused on the last 100 yards. Some two-thirds of all golf shots are in the short game. Forty percent of all shots are on the putting green. So, it seems that learning and practice are best focused on finishing the job for that hole. That’s where the payoff—birdie, par, bogey or worse—comes. The wise golfer concentrates on developing the short game to successfully complete each hole, much like the learner works on adding skills and knowledge in increments to advance in their careers.

A college baccalaureate degree today is like the long fairway; it takes four to five years of full-time study to complete. Colleges and universities will, of course, continue to serve that need for a lengthy, well-rounded education. But, given the needs of employers and priorities of students and families to produce a faster, more economical return on their investment, shorter-term certificate programs are appealing. For example, the University of California, Davis, reports regarding its programs that “Most certificate programs take approximately two years to complete if you take one course per quarter. Intensive Certificate Programs are typically completed in 10-12 weeks of full-time study. Customized Certificate Programs may take up to five years to complete.”

As we prepare for the needs of learners, we should take stock of the fact that some will continue to need a baccalaureate degree, however, all will require continuing professional education in the form of additional certificates, certifications, internships, apprenticeships and other learning opportunities. Stackable certificates provide a way to scaffold learning in increments that are marketable—providing career advancement along the way. These are where the learning can be focused on the job at hand, while at the same time accruing longer-term benefits in the form of associate, baccalaureate and advanced degrees. It is in this mix of offerings that the long-term “return” on the cumulative investment in education is realized.

So, how might an institution begin to add the short game to its portfolio? First, we assess our current offerings to match their relevance to the field both today and anticipated for the future. We can only do that with the close cooperation and coordination with professionals already in the field. Adjustments are made as needed. We further collaborate with employers to identify the learning outcomes, usually across several classes, that qualify successful completion as meeting the needs of entry-level applicants for a class of positions. These are then assembled into a sequence that can be completed efficiently and assessed, perhaps using virtual and augmented reality tools to best simulate the real application of skills, methods and principles learned. With the help of interested students and families, we find the best match for setting costs, modes of delivery and course loads. In taking this approach, we engage all three groups of our stakeholders—employers, prospective students and families—in helping the faculty and staff to shape the best product. This engagement process is regularly repeated to add more certificate sequences and to update older ones.

Does this kind of internal/external collaboration go into frequent reviews and revisions of your curriculum? Are your departmental curricula up-to-date and relevant to employers in all relevant fields? Are you responding to the needs of students and families by engaging them frequently and deeply in developing standards for workload for classes, modes of delivery, length of certificates and desired career outcomes?

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