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Embedding and Aligning Certifications with Academic Programs

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Embedding and Aligning Certifications with Academic Programs


Value of Embedding and Aligning a Certification with Academic Programs

Different types of credentials fulfill different purposes. Higher education institutions award degrees and certificates after completion of a course of study. Certifications are awarded by third-party entities such as industry organizations, professional associations, and employers to indicate that an individual has a level of competence or skill mastery. How can these two very different types of credentials be used together to help learners reach their career and education goals?

Currently, many higher education institutions offer courses to help learners prepare for a certification exam. For example, non-degree or continuing education courses focus on preparing individuals to take AWS Certified Solutions Architect (Associate), Project Management Professional (PMP)®, SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP™), and Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification exams. But there are other ways to think about the relationship between credentials—specifically, the certification exam blueprint—and the curriculum of degree and certificate programs.

One strategy is to embed or align certifications with academic degree or certificate programs. The rationale for this approach is to give learners more opportunities to signal mastery of relevant skills that lead to living-wage jobs while they pursue a certificate or degree. While certifications can be included as curricular or co-curricular experiences, this playbook focuses on curricular experiences.

Learners, postsecondary institutions, certification bodies, employers, and society at large can all benefit when certifications are embedded or aligned with academic degrees or certificate programs. However, these benefits vary among the different stakeholders.

Learners can…

  •  Gain both a broad-based education and industry-specific skills that hiring managers seek.
  •  Expand their career opportunities and their awareness of career and credential pathways.
  •  More easily communicate their knowledge, skills, and abilities to employers (due to their increased understanding of the relationship between their academic coursework and the competencies assessed in the certification exam).
  •  Move more easily beyond an academic discipline(s). For example, a Spanish major could earn a certification to be a medical interpreter, a music major could add a cybersecurity certification, or a biology major could earn certification as a medical lab professional.
  •  Increase their pay and improve job prospects sooner—and possibly more affordably—than if a degree and certification were pursued separately

Postsecondary Education Institutions can…

  •  Respond more effectively to the needs of learners and employers.
  •  Set their programs apart from those of other institutions that do not embed or align certifications or degrees.
  •  Better represent students’ knowledge and skills.
  •  Strengthen relationships with employers.
  •  Engage faculty in developing curriculum that is both academically rigorous and labor market relevant.

Certification Bodies can…

  •  Increase awareness, pursuit, and attainment of their certification.
  •  Improve their understanding of how the certification relates to a variety of career and credential pathways.
  •  Better understand how a broad-based education afforded by a degree benefits industry professionals who hold both degrees and certifications.
  •  Increase opportunities to expand partnerships with universities to develop programs to meet recertification requirements.
  •  Build more and better relationships with professionals earlier in their careers, which can help them better understand changing demands for certifications.

Employers can…

  •  Gain access to more information about what an individual knows and is able to do.
  •  More easily determine whether an individual has specific competencies required to perform a particular job (as opposed to a broad-based education from a degree).
  •  Better understand how individuals who earn a certification and recertify continue to learn and update their skills. (This adds value to a degree, which represents an individual’s knowledge only at the time of attainment).
  •  Establish stronger relationships with postsecondary institutions and certification bodies, which can help improve the employer’s workforce-development strategy.

Ultimately, there are benefits that can be experienced by society at large when certifications are embedded or aligned with academic degrees or certificate programs including:

  •  The value of each credential is strengthened
  •  Improved career outcomes for students and workers
  •  A common language and common currency around skills that cross postsecondary education institutions, employers, certification bodies, and learners

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