Certification – Indications of Market Readiness in U.S. Higher Education

There is growing evidence of ever more rapid change in how we learn and in the choices we are making about higher education.  Those changes are making it more likely that a certification process will spread to non-technical areas.  It is now more likely that certification will begin to replace traditional higher education with its graduation and diplomas; instead, a system of testing for what has been learned along with certifying that learning is becoming more likely – and sooner.

Higher education in the US has remained committed to a form of education that is very traditional.  For the most part, classes are still face-to-face.  Learning is evaluated by means of multiple-choice exams (with some written samples in smaller non-state schools).  Letter grades are the norm at the close of the still-traditional 16-week semester.  And students still receive diplomas at graduation as a sign of their knowledge and skills.

The process from entry to baccalaureate completion is measured as a six-year one, and the success rate for students at graduation, even after six years, is still bemoaned by many as too low – especially for males and minorities.  Periodically national tests of knowledge of some subject like U.S. history or political science raises the question of what, if anything is learned over those six years.  Routinely employers find themselves having to reject applicants with college diplomas or retrain them because they can’t write standard English nor can they complete simple maths.

This description alone cries out for change to higher education in America.  Fortunately, there is growing evidence that change may be on the horizon  coming from several directions.  One is the declining attraction of some degree programs like the Master’s in Business Administration (MBA).  Students have been voting against traditional two-year MBA programs by not enrolling.  These 2-year MBA programs represent high opportunity costs for students in time and tuition.  Stagnation in the salaries offered at graduation has not helped.  Instead many students are opting for one-year MBAs, most of which still remain outside the U.S. from highly ranked schools like INSEAD, HEC, IE, etc. or for one-year Master of Science (MS) degrees from the growing number of traditional providers, like the Thunderbird School of Global Management, where I serve as president.

Evidence for change in higher education also comes from a recent report from the Sloan Consortium, Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States.  What is remarkable about the report is not that it provides any direct evidence for certification.  What it does is tell the story of how the market is changing in ways that set the stage for certification, rather than the traditional six-year path to a college degree.

Changing Course reports that the proportion of students taking at least one online course is now at 32%, which is a new high.  For every year that the report has been done, the rate of enrollment in an online course has surpassed the growth in enrollment in higher education overall.  What is relatively new in the report is the focus on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the reaction to them.  While there is still limited interest by academic leaders in expanding MOOCs, there is an interesting perception of their acceptance in the workplace.  While only 19% do not believe they will be accepted in the workplace, the remainder either agrees that they will be accepted or are neutral.  MOOCs provide the foundation for easily accessible learning opportunities, and they do what traditional diplomas should do – certify that a body of knowledge and skills has been acquired.

Between the move away from high-priced and lengthy degree programs and the increase in access to online learning, the stage is set for a certification process.  Adding to that pressure is the way we learn.  We have long had the option of doing what Abraham Lincoln did and search out books to read in order to learn on our own without schools.  Now, the Internet places information far more readily at our fingertips.  When we have a question about something we have observed or heard, we only have to turn to the smart phone in our purse or pocket or the tablet lying on the table at our side.

We have long understood the potential role of certification.  It involves setting standards for what should be learned about a given subject and requiring that success be learning to standard.  Certification is about demonstration of knowledge and skills for “certification” rather than spending time in class over many semesters.  And it is about certifying what you know whether you learned it in a 16-week class or you read it on your own or learned how to do it by virtue of job or just sheer determination.  The stage is set for the Department of Education to allow certification in addition to the traditional diploma-related process for new, traditional areas of education.


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