Market forces turn one-trick ponies into one-stop shops

More traditional US institutions are playing for-profits at their own game by offering short professional courses. Jon Marcus reports

April 26, 2012

Credit: AlamyCharge! Universities are beginning to profit from providing shorter programmes leading to professional certificates

If you can’t beat them, join them. That’s the attitude being adopted by a growing number of traditional US universities towards their private-sector rivals, as they start to branch out from their main product of graduate and undergraduate degrees into the lucrative field of professional certificates, which are increasingly in demand by business.

The universities have, in the recent past, watched from the sidelines as two-year-course community colleges and for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix cashed in on the estimated $140 billion (£88 billion) market for career training.

Now they are getting in on the act.

“It’s a good side business for four-year colleges and graduate schools,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, which is studying the trend. “The growth [of this sector] is huge.”

Possibly too huge, he and others have suggested, as universities leap into the professional-certificate business without knowing if supply will soon exceed demand.

“A lot of this [expansion] is speculative investment,” Dr Carnevale said.

For now, though, enrolment on such courses tends to be strong.

Many of the new professional certificates are being offered in such fast-growing fields as hybrid-vehicle technology, intelligence, information technology and financial regulation.

Students see professional certificates as valuable credentials that set them apart in a competitive employment market or position them for pay rises or promotions.

Francia Smith, for example, has gone back to Pace University in New York at the age of 33 to study for a professional certificate in financial regulation, which Pace introduced in February.

“[Working] in this industry, with the regulatory environment changing basically daily, I needed a little something to help me stay on top [of the competition],” she said. “This is what the industry is looking for.”

Ever-tightening budgets

If the relatively short, professionally oriented courses are helping students, they are also a potential boon for universities.

Professional-certificate programmes can be added and updated more quickly than conventional academic ones, and they attract students who may ultimately enrol for graduate degree courses.

But most importantly in these days of ever-tightening budgets, they bring in revenue, largely from mid-career students who pay the full cost without needing institutional financial aid or have employers that reimburse their tuition costs.

“Very few things happen for one [single] reason but, in general, [this growth] is market driven” both for students and for universities, said Neil Braun, dean of the Lubin School of Business at Pace.

“Certificate programmes are very useful for people who see the world around them changing faster than they can keep pace, and who need an immersion educational experience in which someone can quickly get them up to speed.”

Meanwhile, Mr Braun continued, “higher education is undergoing the same kind of fundamental metamorphosis that every other industry has undergone because of changing technology and the global [environment].”

Mercyhurst University in Pennsylvania is taking its involvement with professional certificates even further by globalising them, having opened a new centre in Dungarvan, in the Republic of Ireland, that will allow it to offer professional certificates in intelligence studies throughout Europe.

All this is indicative of a “revolution in higher education”, said James Breckenridge, dean of the university’s intelligence studies department.

“We started to see the signals a decade ago. Increasing numbers of adults can’t go to school full time, so certificates address that particular need.”

For Dr Breckenridge, universities’ involvement in this area is “win-win”.

“Just as a good investor realises that he has to have a balanced portfolio of investments, universities and colleges recognise that they do, too,” he said.

Those that succeed in doing that will survive, he said. Those that don’t, he predicted, “are going to lose”.

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