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from Ray Schroeder, Senior Fellow at UPCEA

Credentials: Closing the Relevancy Loop

One of higher ed’s challenges is to close the loop on relevancy for every student in every module of every class.

Too often in our classes we present history, equations, assorted facts, data and retrospective analyses without supplying the current and future context of application of all of those components. The applicability of the class content in an AI-enhanced society and workplace should, in most cases, be the emphasis of the entire course. Perhaps we may think the application of the assembly of facts, principles and concepts is obvious when it is not at all clear to our learners or to employers. Examples of this course design deficiency abound across the curriculum but especially in older general education classes and textbooks. This gap in building knowledge is at the source of many criticisms and complaints about higher education. The relevancy gap becomes especially concerning as students are digging themselves into an average of $37,000 in debt without knowing how to apply whatever they may have learned in a career.

Author Lauren Hamer writes in Wall Street Watchdog that the name and focus of the degree itself can be a turnoff to employers. For example, she found the unemployment rate among environmental science degree holders was nearly 12 percent, while natural resource management degree holders averaged a 2 percent unemployment rate. Again and again, she cites examples where the degree that includes a clear application to careers is much more likely than a related generic degree to result in employment.

It is essential that we review all of our courses and degrees for relevance and applicability to lives and careers of today and tomorrow. We must consider constructing assessments not on the memorization of history, principles and facts, but rather on applying what is learned to current and future challenges. Making authentic assessments a core value in course development can go a long way toward updating the curriculum. In doing so, the course and degree titles will naturally become more descriptive and appealing to both students and employers.

While this is true for degrees, it is even more relevant in the burgeoning certificate and credentialing field. Whether they be stackable, for-credit or noncredit credentials, successful programs have a laser focus on relevance to the workforce job market. There are thousands and thousands of college-based certificate programs. Many are online to meet the needs of the widest variety of students, and many are accredited by associations and agencies in the area of study.

Certification programs are ones that prepare the learner for a specific field of employment and generally result in a credential that is broadly accepted as competence for a particular career. Not all certifications are equal. The team at Glassdoor writes, “With the rise of online learning, there’s no shortage of classes you can take that offer you a certification in a particular trade, skill or software program. But outside of positions that require certifications—pilots, emergency medical technicians and insurance agents, for example—do any of these make a real difference in a job application? We reached out to recruiters and HR professionals to get the answer. The consensus: Certifications certainly can make a difference, but not all certifications are created equal.”

Credentialing is not limited to learners in the U.S. The team at Goodwall, a leading international professional development firm, writes, “Professional job certifications are a great way to shine and show you have the right skills to succeed. Certifications are proof that an individual completed a set of training programs that focus on a specialized area of study. The number of professional certification options available is vast, some of them can even land you a great job without a degree. If you’re overwhelmed by the options, we’ve provided a list of the best job certifications to set you apart from the crowd.”

Geoff Williams at U.S. News & World Report compiled a list of 15 top-paying certifications that are attracting students and employers in 2022. “These programs, often offered by colleges, provide training in specific fields. You can take certificate programs as a college graduate, but there are many designed for people with a high school diploma or GED [who] want additional training to land an entry-level position.”

What is your university doing to assure that all offerings—credit and noncredit—are relevant to society and the workplace of today and tomorrow? Is your institution offering short-course, nondegree (or stackable within a degree) programs that are forward-designed, relevant and affordable? Who is leading the initiative? What can you do to facilitate this advance that could make a real difference in the viability of your institution today and tomorrow?


This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog.

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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