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What Certificates Should We Offer


Nadine Brock

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Since the pandemic, employed and underemployed adults are eager to gain more skills to increase their upward mobility to higher-paying jobs.

Short-term certificates can meet the needs of nontraditional and traditional students who want immediate employment, add in-demand skills to their resumes, or pump up their career profiles. Savvy colleges and universities are prioritizing the development of certificates alongside discussions of hot topics such as what programs to develop online.

If undergraduate certificate ideas are percolating at your school, review these trends and questions to see whether they might apply to your region and institution.

1. Undergraduate Certificate Volume Is Large and Growing!

Don’t overlook undergraduate certificates in your efforts to increase enrollment. Undergraduate certificates volume is nearly equal to that of associate degrees and had a higher growth rate. The table reflects actual degrees awarded to students.

  2020 2021 % Growth % Share 2021
Associate Degrees 1,020,685 1,037,695 1.7% 19.3%
UG Certificates* 974,091 999,105 2.6% 18.6%
Bachelor’s Degrees 2,143,798 2,170,552 1.2% 40.4%
Postbaccalaureate Certificates 57,047 64,210 12.6% 1.2%
Master’s Degrees 852,921 878,041 2.9% 16.4%
Post-master’s Certificates 24,101 24,664 2.3% 0.5%
Doctoral 190,919 195,229 2.3% 3.6%
Total awards 5,263,562 5,369,496 2.0% 100.0%

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Award completions component final data (2001-02 – 2019-20) and provisional data (2020-21)

Most recently, completed degrees across all award levels grew 2%. Fastest growing award types are:

  • Undergraduate certificates – 2.6%*
  • Master’s degrees – 2.9%
  • Post-baccalaureate certificates – 12.6%

*Undergraduate certificate totals above combine three award classifications; 1. Awards of less than 1 year, 2. Awards of at least 1 but less than 2 years, 3. Awards of at least 2 years but less than 4 years.

Breaking down the undergraduate certificates by type, those that take less than one year to complete grew by 6.9%—further proof that short-term certificates are in high demand. This puts pressure on institutions to move students more quickly through the content and shorten the number of weeks to complete a course.

2. What Disciplines Are In Demand?

Undergraduate certificates in health professions, business and marketing, computer and information systems, and those that lead directly to employment (e.g., culinary arts, personal services like nail technicians, aestheticians, and trades) are among the largest volume certificate categories in the U.S.

Liberal arts undergraduate certificates are offered by many two-year institutions to provide a pathway to an associate degree—captured under Liberal Arts, Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities.  

Referencing 2.0% overall growth as a measure for growth across all disciplines, specific academic areas bulleted below post faster than average growth. Academic area (at the two-digit CIP Code level) containing at least one program with at least 1,000 undergraduate certificates are included:

  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences – 66.5%
  • Social Sciences 13.6%
  • Legal Professions – 13.0%
  • Education – 12.5%
  • English Language – 11.1%
  • Culinary and Personal Services – 9.8%
  • Transportation – 7.0%
  • Computer and Information Services – 6.4%
  • Engineering – 6.2%
  • Business and Marketing – 4.9%
  • Health Professions – 4.6%

3. Health Professions: Nursing and…

Nurses at any level are in demand and lead in the undergraduate certificate volume.

Beyond nursing, other programs are a mix of patient care related occupations and administrative roles in healthcare settings.

Patient Care (YOY %) Administrative (YOY%)
Medical/Clinical Assistants – 10.0% Medical Insurance Coding – 22.3%
EMTs – 4.5% Health Information Technician – 19.9%
Dental Assistants – 20.3%  
Phlebotomy Technician – 13.1%  
Pharmacy Technician – 11.9%  
Sonographer and Ultrasound Technician -11%  

Biotechnology (strictly defined falls under Biological and Medical Sciences) with 1,126 undergraduate certificate awards in 2021 posts 34.9%! Pharmaceutical and Biotechnology, two fast-growing industries, also need some entry-level technicians to fulfill manufacturing requirements. Explore labor needs with your local pharma/biotech employers to see how you can boost the labor pipeline for specific skills.

4. Consider a Call Center Certificate?

Proven winners in business are general business administration and management certificates, accounting, human resources, and entrepreneurship, but did you know call center certificates grew 85.9% between 2020-2021? Call center activity has increased since the pandemic and call centers need qualified employees. One community college that’s excelling with this certificate is Sinclair Community College.

Sinclair Community College, Dayton, OH — 3,000+ certificates awarded in 2021(*). Sinclair offers the Call Center/Customer Service short term technical certificate with 17-19 credits, provides training on software applications, documentation, customer service, and offers several electives so students can specialize their education towards healthcare or other software applications. The College partners with call centers in the area; a sound approach to developing any new program.

*SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Completions component final data (2001-02 – 2019-20) and provisional data (2020-21) provides Sinclair Community Colleges award level. Stamats verified the call center program on the website landing page.

“Approximately 10 to 15 years ago, the Dayton region saw an increase in the number of customer service/call centers. At one time, there were nearly 10,000 call center workers here in the 14-county region. As the industry grew, so did the need for skilled workers. The mission of Sinclair Community College is to find the need and endeavor to meet it.

Sinclair introduced short-term certificates and courses designed to prepare students for the growing customer service/call centers’ workforce needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became an attractive career option that often allows individuals to work remotely. The certificates and courses also help students build skills including communication, problem solving, and professionalism.”

– Cathy Petersen, Chief of Public Information, Sinclair Community College

Where is project management? This program often is reported under Business Administration and Management and may not be as easily identified using this data set. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to top skills in demand in your region and to stay in touch with key employers to align your certificate offering with their needs.

Project management certificates are everywhere from Grow with Google certificates, Project Management Institute programs, Coursera, Ed2Go, and nearly every university and college offers one too. With so much competition in this single program, partnering with a local employer might be a good approach to recruit students.

Other business undergraduate certificates with above average growth rate include:

  • Logistics, Materials and Supply Chain Management undergraduate certificate volume was 1,384 awards and grew by 4.1% (2020-2021).
  • Real Estate undergraduate certificate volume was 3,053 awards in 2021 and grew by 20.9% (2020-2021).

Best practice is to examine the needs in your market to see if these apply to what employers want.

5. Which Computer and IT Certificates Make Sense?

Specialties in computer and information technology with strong growth include:

  • Networking,
  • Database administration,
  • Security,
  • Programming,
  • Specific software applications,
  • Support specialists

Combine the student demand data above with the prediction of CIO’s magazine report of what industry experts believe to be “Top 15 IT Certificates in Demand for 2021” and you have a punch list to consider!

  1. AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner
  2. Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)
  3. Certified Data Privacy Solutions Engineer (CDPSE)
  4. Certified Data Professional (CDP)
  5. Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
  6. Certified Information Security Manager (CISM)
  7. Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
  8. Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE)
  9. Cisco Certified Network Professional (CCNP)
  10. CompTIA (A+, Cloud+, Security+)
  11. Microsoft Certified Azure Solutions Architect Expert
  12. Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL)
  13. Oracle MySQL Database Administration
  14. Project Management Professional (PMP)
  15. Salesforce Certified Development Lifecycle and Deployment Designer

Source: https://www.cio.com/article/193586/top-15-it-certifications-in-demand-for-2021.html

As automation and digital work processes increase across nearly all industries and occupations, it will be important to show your institution can stay on top of the latest skill needs. The best practice is to review your program offering with all three data points, student demand, competitor intensity and performance, and regional employer demand then adjust accordingly.  

6. Education and Child Care

Early Childhood Teaching had 7,570 undergraduate certificate awards in 2021, by far the largest volume discipline in education, and grew by 4.0%. 45% of the awards completed in 2021 came from domestic students of color.

In a related academic category, Child Care Provider/Assistant program awarded a total of 14,698 undergraduate certificates in 2021 and grew by 4.3%. 62% of the awards were again from domestic students of color. The demand for this program far outweighs the early childhood teaching program.

If your institution is trying to enroll a greater number of students of color, consider these certificate programs.

7. Career and Technical Education Programs

Selective skilled trade professions have significant demand as reflected here in undergraduate certificates awarded in 2021. Welding, CDL programs, and electricians are the largest volume programs but smaller programs like firefighting, plumbing, and CNC machinists post double-digit growth.

  2021 Awards Year on year growth %
Welding 39,100 3.6%
Commercial Truck and Bus Drivers 16,544 9.5%
Electrician 15,890 3.5%
Fire Science/Firefighting 5,854 13.9%
Veterinary Technician 3,309 3.8%
CNC Machinist 2,402 31.4%
Fire Prevention and Safety Technician 2,061 5.0%
Plumbing 1,693 12.2%
Electromechanical Technician 1,414 6.5%

As short-term certificates less than one year are more popular among students, compare your current program offering to that of competitors? Can you shorten program length and take some market share from your competitors?

8. Liberal Arts Gems

It’s a given that general liberal arts/general studies/humanities undergraduate certificates are extremely popular at community colleges as they can lead the way to an Associate’s degree or more. A few other academic program gems were dug up in this analysis.

  • Paralegals 4,023 undergraduate certificates were awarded in 2021 and the program grew by 13.1%. You don’t need to have an Associate’s degree to become a paralegal. Today paralegals and legal assistants must be skilled in legal database platforms like Westlaw and Lexis Nexis. Remember, students want to move quickly to jobs that pay. Consider offering a shorter-term certificate and use the names of the legal tools they are exposed to in your course descriptions.
  • Geographic Information Science and Cartography 1,070 undergraduate certificates were awarded in 2021 and the program grew by 18.1%. GIS applications are important in diverse industries such as government agencies, agriculture, retailers, healthcare, banking, manufacturing, construction, engineering consulting, higher education, and more.
  • Graphic Design 1,072 undergraduate certificates were awarded in 2021 and the program grew by 9%. Students working in a variety of roles in communications, public relations, marketing, and website development may want to gain some additional skills in Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, and InDesign.

What’s a common theme above? Databases (Westlaw, LexisNexis) and software applications (GIS, Adobe) are skills needed within each certificate. Be sure to use the software names in your landing pages and course descriptions so students understand they are gaining knowledge and exposure to these key applications.

Ready to research certificates for your institution? Email me to schedule a free consultation.

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