Degree Plus?

University of Utah’s new certificate program raises a question: Do students with liberal arts degrees need more to get a job?

May 31, 2017
 

Not every student walking away with a liberal arts degree from the University of Utah -- or any other institution, for that matter -- feels confident picking a profession or finding a job in an often tepid market.

So the university has introduced an option growing in popularity -- a certificate program, what it has labeled as “degree-plus.” Though certificates often are geared toward older adults returning to academe and seeking to diversify their skill sets, the University of Utah has concentrated on recent liberal arts graduates, largely in the humanities and social sciences.

The pitch: through just seven or eight weeks of what university officials call inexpensive classes, those with a liberal arts background can learn technical skills that will make them more attractive to prospective employers, and possibly introduce them to a new field.

“Use your psychology degree to move into a career in recruiting and talent acquisition,” a website advertising the program reads. “Take your history degree into the creative fields of web design or digital marketing. Or discover that the interests that led you to a degree in English may also be a great match for a career in operations or project management.”

The research that campus leaders are basing the program on, conducted by Burning Glass Technologies, indicates a skills gap between liberal arts students and those with more in-demand backgrounds -- namely in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics realm, said Andrea Miller, the associate director for professional education at the university.

But the university won’t use the term “skills gap,” Miller said. The certificate simply provides another possibility for graduates, and it’s certainly not necessary for a liberal arts major to succeed, she said.

In 2013, Burning Glass, a software analytics company focused on studying labor, found that the salaries of liberal arts graduates with some additional technical skills averaged about $7,000 higher than their peers with just a degree. Nearly double the number of jobs are available to graduates with some form of technical skills, according to a Burning Glass report.

“Adding skills is not a bad idea,” Miller said. “In this lifelong learning reality of higher education, your undergraduate degree cannot be the last thing you learn in today’s economy.”

A survey of 3,000 undergraduates (the university received about 600 responses) validated the concept, Miller said. Students responded positively to the idea.

The certificate -- which does not earn students credits -- will be added to transcripts, and they will be provided code for a digital “badge” that can be placed on online résumés and social media.

Though some liberal arts students secured internships with ease and had an advantage finding a job, others found the broadness of what they could do with a liberal arts degree “daunting,” Miller said.

The university narrowed down five programs it wanted to offer in the first phase of the rollout in fall 2017, with certificates ranging from data and work force analysis to instructional design.

Most of the students in the program will have just completed a four- or five-year undergraduate degree and wouldn’t want to dive into something complex, Miller said. The university wouldn’t want to burden students with additional debt, either, acknowledging the ubiquity and weight of student loans, she said.

Each certificate, which can be completed in roughly 60 hours of instruction, costs $1,499, with other nominal fees in a couple of the programs, Miller said.

Classes are held a couple times a week, she said. Instruction, by choice, is not online, Miller said.

A credential can be completed in a shorter time frame than a full degree, though quality should always be questioned, said Jim Woodell, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' vice president for economic development and community engagement.

Students sought networking opportunities and the ability to talk with someone working in the industry, which includes most of the instructors, Miller said. The university brought in a mix of existing adjunct professors and other professionals to teach classes.

Each course ends with a capstone project so students can prove to employers what skills they’ve learned, Miller said.

The way colleges and universities decide to weave in such technical skills will differ depending on the program, but institutions need to make an effort to include work-related opportunities outside the classroom, Woodell said. Building technical skills into curricula could be dangerous because in five years, they could be outdated, he said.

"The whole trend around work, around microcredentialing and understanding how we can deliver a program beyond just a degree, is an important one," Woodell said.

Matt Hilburn, vice president of research and marketing for EDCUtah, a nonprofit that tries to attract businesses to the state, in an interview talked up liberal arts students’ communication skills.

Hilburn will oversee the data analysis certificate at the university. Data skills on a résumé can pique the interest of someone hiring for a traditionally liberal arts position, he said.

Becoming a master statistician would still require a master’s degree, Hilburn said.

“As a data guy, I do think that data is important. But we underserve and we almost demean the liberal arts,” he said. “I don’t think this is required for liberal arts students.”

Almost every institution has established a career center to assist students with picking a career path or steering them toward academic opportunities that would enhance their viability. Such a model is far from outdated, Miller said, but luring in the typical undergraduate student, a busy teenager or young adult, can prove difficult.

“It is the question of the century, how to get their attention,” she said. “We have to throw out as many solutions out there as possible.”

A study by Gallup and Purdue University found that 17 percent of students surveyed nationwide found their career center to be “very helpful” -- about 63 percent found it either “helpful” or “somewhat helpful.”

Most students indicated -- about 60 percent -- they had at least visited the career center once.

Brent Drake, Purdue's chief data officer, who works on the Gallup-Purdue Index, said he does not believe a liberal arts education has lost its value. He said personally the liberal arts have taught him all the skills he's needed to be a "lifelong learner."

The worth of stackable credentials will vary by student, he said.

"I think it really depends on what the student's career aspirations and desires are," Drake said. "If they’re focusing on a more specific area or trying to pick up extra job skills, it makes sense."

Penny Rue, Wake Forest University’s vice president for campus life and the chairwoman-elect of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said she believes programs like the one at Utah will be become more popular and emulated.

Because these are certificates, not full degrees, they’re not necessarily governed by the same accreditation standards can be delivered more nimbly, Rue said.

Students also want speedy solutions after graduation, she said. Rue pointed out that Wake Forest’s most popular postgrad program is a one-year master’s in management.

“I definitely think we’ll see more of this,” Rue said.

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