Creativity and College Completion: Certificates

By Bret Danilowicz, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Oklahoma State University

To achieve Oklahoma’s goal of increasing the number of students who complete higher education, we need to connect with a broader audience than just “traditional” undergraduate students.  I define traditional students as those who progress into a full-time undergraduate degree program within a few years of completing high-school- roughly 60% of our high-school graduates.  For the non-traditional population (the remaining 40%), the cost, time and interest needed to complete an undergraduate degree can be overwhelming.  Let me walk you through why, and follow with a recommendation how our state can provide a simpler transition into higher education for non-traditional students.

Higher education is generally perceived as a two-year or four-year degree.  Although the value of a degree to a graduate’s long-term earnings is well documented, the upfront cost is daunting.  For individuals paying for their tuition, fees, books, and other expenses, costs range roughly from $6,000 for a 2-year degree at a public community college to over $200,000 for a 4-year degree at a private university. The cost is well known; what the potential student does not know is if they themselves will complete the degree to benefit from its cost.  Will they achieve passing grades and will their personal motivation for the coursework persist?

Compounding the cost investment is the time needed to complete a degree.  Many non-traditional students need to work full-time (or close to it) to cover their living expenses – and possibly their family’s- while also covering the cost of their degree.  Someone working full time and managing to take four courses a year (an accomplishment in itself) would take five years to receive a “two-year” associates degree or ten years to receive a “four-year” baccalaureate degree- assuming the student passes all of their courses.  Cost + time = uncertainty about higher education degrees.

Yet there is another route towards completion in higher education: undergraduate certificates.  These certificates are comprised of a small group of related courses that provide targeted education within a specific subject area.  Certificates can be used as a stepping stone to a full degree- allowing a student to take courses which immediately align with their career interests, yet also align with the requirements of a full undergraduate degree (should they choose to continue after earning a certificate).  Starting at just five courses, these certificates cost as little as $1,500 at a community college and can be completed in under two-years even by part-time students.  Upon completion, certificates add value to a person’s competitiveness in the workforce, adding an average of 27% pay for men and 16% pay for women1– and these count towards Oklahoma’s completion agenda.  (The primary reason for the gender difference appears to be the certificates associated with the largest salary increases as in the computer-related fields tend to be predominantly completed by males- see Inside Higher Ed).

Real examples of undergraduate certificates include project management, biotechnology research assistant, digital arts, accounting, and family services: each is directly applicable to a growth area in the workforce (see some options in Oklahoma by looking at the OCCC and TCC websites).  While undergraduate certificates are presently available at community colleges across much of the state, certificate programs number less than a quarter of the available associates degree programs.  Alongside the more limited range of programs, certificates are not promoted with the same effort used to promote degree programs.  Just how aware is Oklahoma’s populace about the certificate option and its potential value?  (Note that undergraduate certificates are also available at universities- but these are generally intended to be taken concurrently with a degree program.)

Colleges should be encouraged to increase the availability of these undergraduate certificates, while the state launches a marketing effort specifically to promote the value and flexibility of these certificates. It would allow non-traditional students an entry into higher education that is likely better suited to their cost and time needs, and they can more quickly assess the value of higher education for their career.  National data suggests that after completing a certificate, a full third of these students will continue into an undergraduate degree program (and there are many benefits to them and Oklahoma for them doing so- perhaps a subject of a future blog?).  While no single solution will result in Oklahoma’s goal to have more of its residents complete some form of higher education- increasing the availability, awareness of, and completion of undergraduate certificates should be a part of the plan.

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