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Building Certification-Degree Pathways for Student Success, Employability, and Equity

By Sheila Martin, Vice President for Economic Development and Community Engagement


How might college students, educators and administrators improve student success and employability? How might they partner with employers to ensure that students can better identify, define, acquire, and communicate skills that employers value?

These questions were central to our recent investigation of the potential for embedding employer-recognized certifications into four-year degrees. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) recently participated in a collaborative, national initiative to develop a framework for pathways that provide these benefits. This project, made possible by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, partnered APLU with Workcred – an affiliate of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU), and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA).

The framework supports the development and scaling of certification-degree pathways. Specifically, the framework identifies examples, opportunities, benefits, and challenges associated with integrating industry certifications into bachelor’s degrees. The framework can be used by certification bodies and universities to test different strategies and practices to better align certification and degree programs.

To inform the development of the framework, universities and certification bodies from across the U.S. participated in convenings to discuss opportunities and solutions to barriers of embedding certifications into bachelor’s degree programs. The series of convenings specifically explored opportunities in the growing fields of healthcare, cybersecurity, manufacturing, and the liberal arts.

It became clear during the convenings that broader development, acceptance, and effectiveness of these pathways requires several important steps for universities and certification bodies.

  1. Create a Common Language
    At the start of the project, our conversations with potential attendees–from certification bodies and universities– revealed a lack of understanding about each other. To promote a broader understanding and a common language about certifications, we offered explanatory materials including a video that describes the differences between different types of credentials. Furthermore, an understanding of how certifications are developed can aid universities in determining the quality of different certifications. Finally, a clearer understanding of the curriculum development process was important for certification bodies to understand how they might engage with universities to influence their curriculum to better aligns with a particular certification.
  2. Foster Connections in a Community of Practice
    As they wrestle with the challenges of developing a certification-degree pathway, universities and certification bodies will benefit from discussions with others who have worked toward similar goals. A community of practice in which participants share openly about their approaches, whether successful or not, can provide support, inspiration, and information that can be adapted and adopted by those working to solve specific problems. Furthermore, the connections made through these communities might lead to opportunities or breakthroughs that won’t otherwise emerge.
  3. Clarify the Value Proposition
    Because developing new partnerships requires time and resources, it is important to ensure that the value proposition is clear. For students, the value of gaining a certification in addition to a degree includes gaining both a broad-based education and industry-specific skills that hiring managers seek. These pathways might also expand their awareness of career opportunities and their ability to articulate why they are qualified to meet an employer’s needs. For certification bodies, the value proposition includes building awareness of the certification and how it can lead to different careers. For universities, the value of pursuing these pathways lies in improving their responsiveness to the needs of regional employers–to the benefit of their students–and in attracting new students who are excited by the clear pathways to opportunity.
  4. Identify Inspiring Examples
    Developing a certification-degree pathway can be challenging. But it can help immensely to refer to examples that demonstrate both the benefits of collaboration and the processes that might lead to success. During the convenings, participants shared examples that provided inspiration for new partnerships. For example, during the manufacturing convening, Siemens shared their partnership with Middle Tennessee State University. This partnership offers students both a bachelor’s degree in mechatronics and Siemens Level 3 certification, giving them the opportunity to be work-ready for advanced manufacturing careers immediately after graduation.
  5. Ensure Transparency
    Because certification bodies and universities don’t have a track record of working together, they may approach each other with skepticism. The best way to counter this skepticism is transparency about how each partner develops and validates its content. If universities are clear about how learning outcomes are established and validated, certification bodies have a better idea of how those outcomes align with the competencies that must be demonstrated for certification. If they are also transparent about university policies, processes, governance and accreditation concerns, certification bodies can better understand how to influence the curriculum in a way that addresses those concerns. Similarly, if certification bodies are more transparent about how their competencies are developed and which employers recognize the certification, universities can better understand and communicate he value of the partnerships.
  6. Certifications and Equity
    One of the most potentially impactful outcomes of embedding certifications into degrees is the opportunity to reduce inequality and to improve social and economic mobility. Employer-certified labor-market credentials can reduce implicit bias in hiring processes because they certify skill attainment. Furthermore, since they are embedded in the degree process, they can be covered by financial aid, allowing access and benefits to historically minoritized populations.

Improving student success and employability and addressing economic equity are urgent and important missions for public and land-grant universities throughout North America. Certification-degree pathways offer one tool for achieving this mission. APLU hopes to continue this work with Workcred, USU, and UPCEA to develop, test, evaluate, and implement strong, sustainable partnerships for certification-degree pathways.

  • Commission on Economic & Community Engagement
  • Commission on Innovation, Competitiveness, & Economic Prosperity
  • Council on Engagement & Outreach
  • Economic Development & Community Engagement

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