Certificate Programs Grow

August 1, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Generally, a college certificate program consists of a grouping of courses focused on specific skills or professional expertise that leads to eligibility for certification by an organization, agency or association.

Aquinas College, for example, offers an undergraduate level theology certificate program primarily as a service to the diocese, and just began offering an undergrad level certificate in creative writing, said Provost C. Edward Balog, Ph.D. He estimates that about a dozen students have completed certificate programs so far.

This fall, Aquinas will introduce a certificate program in sustainable business for people with master’s degrees. “It’s for people who are interested in learning more about sustainable business practices and the latest information on that, so they can take it back to their places of employment.”

The programs are typically one semester in length, but are offered in a condensed eight- week version, as well, Balog noted. On the undergrad level, a certificate program costs about $1,000 and about $1,150 for a master’s level program.

At Aquinas, most of the certificate instruction is done on campus using current faculty and with some independent work involved, as well, he said. Certificate programs tend to attract adults already involved in careers.

“Typically, they’re middle-aged people looking for another activity other than work; they’re people seeking some enrichment in their lives,” he said. “All over the country now we’re finding that adults — the famous baby boom generation — are looking for other ways to spend some of their leisure time. We thought they might find the certificate programs attractive.” 

Some certificate programs, like those at Davenport University, earn credits that can be applied to a degree. Certificate programs can be collections of courses an institution offers as a certificate, or they can be certificates that require passage of an exam by vendors such as Sisco and Microsoft that result in a credential, said Davenport University Provost Tom Brown.

Davenport has nine “post baccalaureate” certificates that lead to specific certification exams offered by vendors. It also offers a few groupings of courses that follow a theme but don’t necessarily lead to an exam. For those, the school certifies that a student has taken courses that include X amount of content, he said.

In addition, Davenport has 16 “diplomas,” which are collections of courses that are part of an associate degree and that usually lead to some kind of job entry skills, Brown explained.

“We’ve always had diploma programs, but the certificate programs have become far more popular in recent years, primarily because employers are constantly looking for proof that potential employees have a given skill set, and the best way for anybody to prove that is to have become certified by the vendor.” 

Certificate programs at Davenport include as few as three to as many as nine courses, and courses that lead to various certificates are embedded in the school’s degree programs, as well, so they count as credits towards degrees.

“We have students that complete the required number of certificate courses while they’re pursuing a bachelor’s degree, for example,” he said. “Then they may choose whether or not to sit for the certification exam as they’re proceeding through the degree program. Other students come in who already have a bachelor degree and just want to take the courses that lead to the certification exam.”

The two Sisco and two Microsoft certificate programs in computer and network security offered through Davenport’s School of Technology are very popular, he observed.

According to Brown, typical candidates for certificate programs include students who want to accumulate as many certifications as possible enroute to a degree, as well as the student who works and is simply trying to stay abreast of current trends and demonstrate through certification that they’re capable of doing whatever the specific work might be.  

Davenport also has some post-baccalaureate certifications in its business school, one in forensic accounting and another in human resource management. A lot of CPAs take advantage of the forensic accounting certification, and the human resource management certification is popular with people already working in that area but who want to become more specialized in HR disciplines.

“For example, any employer anywhere would know exactly what ‘Certified Microsoft System Engineer’ meant,” Brown observed. “They wouldn’t care whether a student earned that at Davenport University or however.

“Employers are more and more often seeking holders of professional certifications, and in some cases, more so than they’re seeking holders of a specific degree from an institution.”

From a continuing education standpoint, Grand Valley State University is just starting to get into professional certification programs and hopes to offer more, said Simone Jonaitis, interim executive director for continuing education.

GVSU currently offers a no-credit, six-course Certified Financial Planning certification program that covers everything from financial planning, insurance, retirement, personal income to estate planning. Students that successfully complete the program are qualified to sit for the CFP board’s certification exam. That kind of professional development program is primarily driven by professional associations, she said.

On the other side, she said, there are academic programs that are for-credit and are driven by what academics think best meets the demands of the outside world.

“Within continuing education we’re always looking for places where we can assist professionals in meeting their professional obligations and certification requirements,” Jonaitis said.    

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