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Skills Certification or Degree? How Do You Choose

The pandemic has shown that re-skilling and up-skilling are more important than ever for professionals to stay relevant in a rapidly changing economy. Moreover, it’s clear that employers play a greater role in that transfer of skills than ever before – a growing coterie of companies of varying sizes have announced employee education programs that offer learners debt-free ways of acquiring said skills (including InStride, where I work). Not only is this the “right thing” for employers to be doing for their employees, helping them acquire skills and credentials that will carry them far into the future, but employer-funded education also helps companies with talent retention, succession planning and employee engagement.

When thinking about paying for education, it’s no surprise that both companies and individuals want the greatest return-on-investment. Because of the time and costs, learners are retreating from degrees towards more skills-based, short-form credentials and certifications. Options like Google Career Certificates can offer learners in-demand skills in data analysis and human-computer interaction at a fraction of the cost of even the most economical degree programs.   In some cases, a cybersecurity certification from an industry-leading organization is more distinguishing to an employer than a degree in computer science. It seems like the disadvantages for degrees go on forever; they take years to complete, they are expensive, most require studying subjects in which the learner has no interest (or experience). The advantages of skills-based credentials, and shortcomings of degrees, have led me to the question – which wins the talent war, skills or degrees?

Of course, one could make the argument that this question (and my title) sets up a false dichotomy – why must skills-based education and academic degree programs be mutually exclusive? Why can’t one do both? Don’t students learn practical skills in many degree programs?

Indeed, many innovative universities are “doing both” by integrating skills-based, non-academic credentials into their academic degree programs. These programs are usually offered by third parties, sometimes by industry-leading organizations that are providing certifications in particular technologies or by vendors that have designed simulations that test understanding of key concepts. For example, at Arizona State University (often ranked among the nation’s best online programs), the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications offers a Master of Science in Digital Audience Strategy that covers many of the traditional topics one would find in a mass communications graduate degree program (including the usual media law class that everyone needs to take). Beyond the traditional mass comm topics, a degree in Digital Audience Strategy also requires deep understanding of modern technology tools for social media management. Therefore, the designers of the program embed multiple non-academic, skills-based credentials into the existing course assignments, meaning that students obtain valuable, industry-recognized certifications along the way in their graduate program.  In this program, for example, students obtain several HubSpot Academy certifications and Google credentials in addition to completing the courses for the master’s degree (and graduates are encouraged to list certifications on their resume alongside their degree).

The currency of such non-academic certifications cannot be denied, just look at the job market and the thoughts of “stopping out” of college from folks like Peter Thiel. Beyond integrating job-ready credentials into existing curricula, some academic institutions are also working with standards setting organizations to determine ways to award academic credit for non-academic work. For example, the City University of New York School of Professional Studies (another top ranked institution for online programs) offers robust Credit for Prior Learning opportunities for industry certifications.  The American Council on Education (ACE) and the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCR) offer standardized evaluation of college-level training programs, credentials, and licenses from the military, government, and the public sector that may be eligible for college credit at a number of schools, including the CUNY School of Professional Studies. Through this pre-evaluation, the university offers college credit for a variety of non-credit professional certifications, including CompTIA and Cisco technology certifications. These college credits “stack” into several CUNY School of Professional Studies undergraduate degree completion programs for working adults, allowing students to earn credit for industry certifications they may already possess.