The ‘Cash Cow’ of U.S. Universities: Professional Certificates Instead of Degrees

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Reggie Herndon returned to college because he wanted to change careers. What he didn’t want was another degree.

Herndon, a University of Tennessee graduate from Lynchburg, Va., is on his way instead to finishing a nine-month professional certificate in counterintelligence from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., which he hopes will bolster his odds of landing a job as an intelligence analyst with a defense contractor or government agency.

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“I decided that I wanted to re-engineer myself,” said Herndon, 56, who handles marketing for an employment program runs under contract to the Social Security Administration. “But I didn’t want to go back and do the whole graduate program, and come out with a tremendous amount of debt.”

Responding to demand from more and more students like Herndon, universities are jumping into the business of providing professional certificates that were once the domain of community colleges and for-profit providers like the University of Phoenix.

“The growth is huge,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which is studying this new phenomenon.

Certificate programs can be added and updated more quickly than conventional academic ones. And they can help workers keep up with fast-changing fields such as information technology and intelligence, or get raises or promotions.

But a main reason for the explosion in the number of professional certificates at traditional universities, administrators concede, is that they bring in revenue, largely from mid-career students who pay the full cost without needing institutional financial aid, or whose employers reimburse them for tuition.

“It’s a good side-business for four-year colleges and graduate schools,” said Carnevale.

At a time when higher-education budgets are being further and further stretched, universities want a piece of what the Georgetown center estimates is $140 billion a year spent on formal career training nationwide, about 40% of which is siphoned into educational institutions.

“They’re playing precisely that game,” said Robert Ehlers Jr., director of the Center for Security Studies at Angelo State University in Texas, which has added professional certificate programs in criminal justice, border security, counterterrorism and cybersecurity.

Ehlers Jr. said he’s heard officials at other universities refer to professional certificates “as both cash cows and as a means of attracting students who might not otherwise come to that school to sample the kinds of education it might have to offer.”

Ashland University in Ohio, for example, is adding professional certificates this fall in outdoor education, educational technology and educational assessment to build back enrollment in its graduate school of education, which shrank after the state dropped a requirement that teachers have a master’s degree in education.

“This is basically survival for the graduate programs,” said Jim Van Keuren, dean of the university’s Dwight Schar College of Education. “It’s a realignment of graduate education, at least for our college.”

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Not only do students in certificate programs fill seats and pay tuition—a few stick around to get graduate degrees.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, for example, some of the students who are drawn to new certificate programs—in areas such as healthcare technology management, nuclear engineering and digital architecture—often stay to get a master’s degree, said Stephen Flavin, WPI’s vice president of academic and corporate development. “We have an extremely high adoption rate of those who progress on to the full master’s. So it works for the individual, and it also works for us.”

The boom in certificate programs at traditional universities also comes at a time when some are being criticized for failing to provide graduates with skills required in the workplace.

“It’s derivative of an entire revolution in higher education,” said James Breckenridge, executive director of the Institute of Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University (which changed its name from Mercyhurst College this year). “Increasingly, certificates are all that’s required for entry into particular lines of work, so if you’ve got your eye on a particular profession, sometimes a certificate is going to be all you need.”

Professional certificates are also increasingly valuable for mid-career professionals who don’t have time to plod through the programs of study required for advanced degrees but who need to update their skills regularly.

“The old model is, you got qualified and then you went to work,” said Carnevale. “Now qualification never ends, because of changes in skill requirements and new skill requirements. New technologies create whole new demands.”

Pace University’s Lubin School of Business has added a certificate program in the fast-changing field of financial regulatory compliance, for example.

“A global economy and the rapidity of progress in technology require continuous education,” said Neil Braun, the dean and a former president of the NBC Television Network and CEO of Viacom. “Certificate programs are very useful for people who see the world around them changing faster than they can keep pace.”

Students see the benefit of a professional certificate more narrowly: to distinguish them from other candidates for scarce jobs.

“It gives me an identification that sets me above the rest because I have this certificate that says I’m trained in a specialty,” said Meredith LaBeau, 29, who hopes her professional certificate from Michigan Technological University in sustainable water resources systems will give her a leg up on a job in civil or environmental engineering.

Even undergraduates are racking up professional certificates.

“When jobs are as tough as they are to come by, you have to separate yourself from everybody else,” said Matthew Lombardo, a 20-year-old junior at Angelo State who has added professional certificates in Middle Eastern and African security to the courses required for his eventual degree in international studies. “It will add another dimension that will set me apart when I’m applying for a job.”

That kind of thinking has made students “pretty quick to jump into certificate programs,” said Angelo State’s Ehlers, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. “They know from trends in the marketplace that certain programs, if they are in the right areas, convey more pay and more opportunities for promotion.”

Still, some observers are concerned about the speed with which universities are adding certificate programs without a way to measure their comparative quality—or to know whether there will be enough students who will want to take them.

“It’s probably a little bit out of control, frankly,” said Georgetown’s Carnevale. “A lot of this is speculative investment. The issue is always, to what extent does the demand match the supply?”

So fast has been the growth in this area that the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, which makes sure that everything from computers to appliances produced by different companies are standardized, is now developing standards for professional certificate programs. Some government agencies already won’t recognize professional certificate programs unless they’ve been accredited by ANSI.

“We definitely see a trend,” said M. Turan Ayvaz, manager of ANSI’s new Certificate Accreditation Program. “Even state-funded schools are struggling with funding, and certificate programs are a quick revenue source. But at the same time, unfortunately, we don’t see much of an initiative, especially from universities, to make sure their certificate programs have all of the relevant safeguards in terms of quality assurance.”

Ayvaz’s boss, Roy Swift, nonetheless expects more certificate programs to be added by universities.

“Every day we hear about a new one,” said Swift, ANSI’s senior director of personnel credentialing accreditation programs. “But we have to require some sort of mandates, or they’re going to be all over the place.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.