by Eric Heiser
As the economy continues to boil and jobs are plentiful, it is important to keep in mind the value that higher education, namely community colleges, can provide to both employers and students. While degrees can take students further and should be considered the end goal of higher education, there are many ways that community colleges can serve students who are simply looking for a step-up in a current position, or perhaps training to move into a new career. No matter what they’re called (certifications, credentials, certificates), these types of training designations must not be overlooked when considering how to help students achieve both short-term and long-term goals.
I can’t help but be a little dismayed at some of the national conversation around the value (or lack thereof) of short-term training. It seems that, for some, the prospect of short-term training is an all-or-nothing proposition. Essentially, either a student enrolls in a short-term certificate, or they enroll in a degree. There can be no middle ground.
In reality, however, there is room for both (and more) at the table. The onus falls on the institution to ensure that the student has clear pathways for adding to their completed short-term certificate or credential. If we don’t allow a student to transfer work completed in a short-term program into a longer-term program, how can we expect the national narrative to change surrounding the either/or conundrum? If guided pathways have taught us anything, it is that institutions must be very deliberate in how they go about setting up programs so that students have both options and structure. This is crucial for institutions to remember as they work to make their short-term certificate programs more inclusive and valuable to students as they progress through their educational journey.
Though it may seem to go without saying, the certificates and credentials I’m speaking about must be of the highest quality and vetted by industry to ensure the proper skillsets are being trained for and attained. I’m hopeful that we’ve learned from some of the mistakes of the past with regard to low-quality training. It stains not only the institution but, most importantly, it handcuffs the student through no fault of their own. We must strive to ensure our short-term training programs are consistent with what is being asked for, and that they truly provide students with opportunities to move from job to career.
At Salt Lake Community College, we strive to create pathways for students in all facets of their lives. For some, especially those enrolled in our competency-based education (CBE) programs, attending full-time or even committing to a fully-fledged degree program is incredibly daunting, and simply not possible given the demands of their current job and home life. For these students especially, a short-term certificate or credential can go a long way helping them progress. Additionally, we find that many employers (especially when the economy is hot) are much more willing to hire a student who may not have completed an entire degree program but possesses the skills needed to gain an entry-level position. We purposely design our short-term training programs with the end-goal of a degree, where applicable.
From an industry perspective, short-term credentials give value that few other programs can provide. Graduates from short-term training programs can save employers both time and money. As jobs are plentiful, industry has a harder time securing quality employees to perform the jobs needed to produce goods and services. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know that without quality help, the cost of goods and services goes up. The more community colleges can do to provide high-quality short-term training, the better off our communities will be. Further, when industry sees how the college has responded to their needs, they are usually much more willing to send their employees for training upgrades and continuing education. It’s a win-win for all parties.
If properly designed, these short-term training opportunities should create lifelong pathways whereby students can enroll in chunks of programming, finish when appropriate or necessitated, and continue moving towards the end-goal of a degree. In the end, students who continue their education throughout their lives and eventually end up with one or more degrees will hold immense value to their employer and their community. The benefits of a well-trained workforce go well beyond just a single family. There is a reason that states which emphasize funding for higher education and workforce training tend to be better off than those that don’t. Well-designed short-term training programs should always be seen as a bridge to something bigger and better for the student.
Institutions that do a good job of providing both short-term training and pathways to degrees from that training will be much better off than those that choose to focus on one or the other.