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The Rise of Certificate Programs
Published Friday, January 12, 2018

As employers seek different ways of filling the widening talent gap, many are turning to certificate programs as a quick and economical way to create skilled workers. During the past 15 years, certificate programs, which are short (often a year or less) with jam-packed offerings often focused on a specific topic, have become a valuable resource for students and employers and a viable revenue stream for higher education. And their popularity only continues to rise.

Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of NH, says between 2011 and 2016, the system experienced 12 percent growth in the certificates awarded across its seven colleges and a 14 percent jump between 2015 and 2016, the last year for which there is full data.

Nationally, between 2000 and 2015, there was a 74 percent increase in the number of certificates conferred across all higher education institutions, from 552,503 to 961,167, according to the most recent numbers available from the U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics.

“In a strong economy, there is increased need and opportunity for workforce up-skilling,” says Gittell. “This can be met through shorter- term programs that lead to attainment of a certificate.”

The rise in popularity of these programs is partially due to the fact that they are short, relatively affordable, come in flexible formats, can be tailored to fit an industry specific need and often lead to good paying jobs or career advancement.

In fact, the increase in certificates awarded is outpacing the rate of bachelor’s degrees awarded. According to a 2017 report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, between 2000 and 2013, the number of certificates awarded by Title IV-eligible postsecondary institutions increased by 73 percent, but the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded during that same period increased by 49 percent.

“The demand is growing, and the labor market returns are strong,” Gittell says, adding certificate programs are especially valuable to those in STEM and IT-related fields seeking to advance their careers.

“They can take a six-month to one-year certificate program and then be able to start new careers at a higher income without going back to a four-year degree and without incurring the cost or taking out a large loan that takes a long time to pay back,” he says. “That’s quite significant.”

Businesses are also investing in certificate programs at a greater rate. In 1996, three-quarters of businesses offered tuition reimbursement, according to a 2017 report by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA). But by 2010, employers still offering that benefit dropped to 64 percent and dropped again to 52 percent in 2015. In contrast, according to the report, between 2011 and 2016, training dollars offered by businesses significantly increased from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Certificate Trends
Certificate programs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but overall they can be completed in anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the program. They have also given rise to other short, intensive alternatives such as bootcamps, nanodegrees, digital badging and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

These sorts of programs are most prevalent at community colleges and for-profit schools, but other institutions offer them as well. These programs often offer training in fields like health care, business, information technology, manufacturing, agriculture, and consumer services, according to the UPCEA report. Demographically, these certificate programs enroll larger shares of women, African Americans, and students from families with lower incomes and less educational attainment than associate or bachelor’s degree programs, according to the UPCEA report.

Most of the people who complete the programs, nationally, are between the ages of 18 and 29, with most falling into the nontraditional student category. Further, according to the UPCEA report, millennials, which outnumber the baby boomer generation, are more open to and have a higher opinion of these nontraditional education options.

“You have a national trend in the reduction in the number of traditional residential students, so universities around the U.S. are trying to make sense of that,” says Chris LaBelle, director of professional development and training at the University of NH. “They are looking at ways to be more relevant and more sensitive to the needs of students who, quite frankly, demand more flexibility.

“[These students] are more interested in online programs; they see the increased value in that. And simultaneously you have in the workplace more employers who recognize and reward unconventional forms of education, whether that’s digital badging or certificate programs or really just experience.”

But while these programs may have grown in popularity recently, they are not a new concept. Options like trade schools, distance learning and work-based training have been around for decades or longer, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences report.

“The community colleges have been more focused on certificate programs than other institutions of higher ed, because their development, particularly in New Hampshire, was built around the trades,” Gittell says, “So it’s very much a long-standing tradition and a strength of the community college in New Hampshire.”

Meeting Industry Needs
What is arguably new is the speed with which the workplace is changing, particularly when it comes to technology. “And it’s really in areas where there are new technologies and new skills needed that are the high demand areas,” Gittell says. For example, he says, CCSNH is seeing the greatest demand in areas of cybersecurity, IT and technical health care topics such as medical coding.

Brian Fleming, executive director of the Sandbox ColLABorative, the research and development lab of strategy and innovation at Southern NH University (SNHU), says while certificates still don’t make up the bulk of its offerings, SNHU too has seen more interest in such programs in recent years. According to Fleming, between FY 2013 and FY 2016, certificates awarded by SNHU jumped from 320 to 594.

Students at Southern NH University’s Sandbox ColLABorative. Courtesy photo.

Fleming says one of the reasons certificates are seeing such traffic is because they are often directly aligned with employer needs, and they tend to train in areas that are rapidly growing and changing, which currently include health care, IT and cybersecurity. And the more they can respond to changes in the workplace, the better off higher education institutions will be as the cost to develop certificate programs is relatively low compared to the high market potential, Fleming says.

While he says he doesn’t know of any nationally representative figure on certificate revenue in higher education or those from MOOCs, he says, “If you look to bootcamps, most research points to revenues of  $266 million.... In higher ed, programs are becoming more viable based on the ability to modularize and customize offerings based on market demand, consumers or employers. In this case, offerings become better aligned to the market and easier to scale.”

Colleges see certificates as solid choices for getting ahead of an emerging need. For example, in NH and around the country, there is a shortage of trained mental health professionals. With competing crises such as the opioid epidemic and the prevalence of PTSD among combat veterans, the need for trained mental health workers has arguably never been greater. With this in mind, the CCSNH is putting together certificates related to behavioral health and veteran counseling, Gittell says.

The need to keep pace and even get ahead of emerging technologies and workplace needs will only grow stronger, according to the UPCEA report.

“As our society evolves from its current state of cloud generation maturity, where our economies have been transformed via e-commerce, the internet of things, and digital and social media, into a society where robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will play a greater role,” the report says, “other industries will also grow, and work forces are expected to shift.”

This is expected to include the auto industry. According to the UPCEA report, there are already nearly two dozen companies that have autonomous vehicle plans or prototypes in the works. Moreover, the report says, related technologies, such as fuel cells and automated signaling, will also grow, as will related industries of trucking and transportation. Further, these industries, the report says, will rely on data mining and predictive analytics, geographic information systems, radar and signal processing, natural language processing and many other technologies where the transformation of the workforce is imminent.

“There is a discussion out there about whether four-year programs are really aligned and whether certificate programs might not be a better fit,” Fleming says of how higher education may need to transform to meet the changing needs of the market. “Bachelor’s degrees may continue to make sense in a number of disciplines, but a certificate might make more sense in other fields like IT where there is a significant uptick in these kinds of credentials. It may be certificates replace the degree, we just don’t know yet.”

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