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Profiling the Certificate Student

October 10, 2006

Some of the most rapid growth in higher education is in certificate programs, which tend to be quicker and less expensive than traditional degree programs, and serve a wider range of students. The archetype: a young, single, mobile female looking to change jobs or advance her career, according to a survey by Eduventures, an education research and consulting company.

Among the findings of “Consumer Preferences for Certificate Programs,” a survey of more than 1,800 students, is that program participants see earning a certificate as a means to a practical end. Nearly half of respondents said a certificate would help facilitate a career change or allow them to fulfill a continuing education requirement in their field of employment.

“In the career changer, you are typically looking at someone who wants to make a move and make it fast,” said David Overbye, dean of curriculum at DeVry University, which offers a range of graduate certificates and enrolls a high percentage of students a few years out of college, whom Overbye said are often lacking direction. “They are typically in their mid- to late 20s, with a sense of urgency. Give me the essential elements of the field as quickly as possible to get my foot in the door, and once I get a job with better pay and a tuition refund, I can go back and get a full degree on the company nickel.”  

The report measures “certificate consumers” against those in other type of adult continuing and professional education programs. Data indicate that certificate students are 36 percent more likely to be career changers, 13 percent less likely to be primarily motivated by improving job performance and 31 percent less likely to be primarily motivated by personal enrichment as are their counterparts.

Certificate enrollees are also less likely to be employed full time (63 percent) than their counterparts (67 percent). They are slightly younger and more transient, as well as more likely to be female, single and without dependent children.

“Overall, [the report] is consistent with what we find here,” said Maida Hastings, associate dean for academic affairs at UCLA Extension, the lifelong learning arm of the University of California at Los Angeles, which offers about 100 certificate programs (and no degree programs). “For the most part, students are interested in upgrading or changing careers.”

Hastings said UCLA has a large cohort of students in their late 20s and early 30s and is starting to attract more mid-career professionals from the Baby Boom generation. Some of the most popular fields for certificate programs there are in entertainment, business management and international finance, she said.

Those are three of the most popular fields over all for students interested in certificate programs, the Eduventures report notes. They are a part of what the survey calls the “practice oriented” disciplines that are more geared toward certificates than those disciplines that tend to require degrees and prioritize educational credentialing in career advancement, such as the sciences, engineering and health care, the report says.  

The largest percentage of both certificate seekers and their counterparts are employed in the education, management, financial operations, and training and library fields, according to the survey.

A “strong majority” of students who responded to Eduventures said they are interested in counting their certificate credit toward a degree.   

Dave Szatmary, vice provost for educational outreach at University of Washington Extension, said almost all students in its  120 certificate programs have at least a bachelor's degree -- with the largest group being those who want to remain in their career but move up quickly.  

Szatmary said he wasn't surprised with the survey results, but said he did not agree with the report's findings that students demanded few certificate programs in fields such as health care and sciences. Online certificate programs and those with an emphasis in Internet technology remain popular, he said.  

Overbye, the DeVry dean, said the institution often attracts students with liberal arts degrees who want to learn skills in technical fields such as computer programming.  

It isn't so much the field, Szatmary said, but the circumstances that determine whether a student should pursue a certificate. “A degree is more portable,” he said. “You can take it to basically any institution or to another part of the country, while a certificate usually has its greatest credibility in the community where you studied.”

Jean Redeker, assistant dean of University of Kansas Continuing Education, said undergraduate students also find use in certificate programs. The university’s Office of International Programs offers a global awareness certificate for students who complete foreign language, international studies and study abroad requirements.

“More and more businesses are looking to hire students with experiences overseas, and this makes them more marketable," she said. 

 

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