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Certificate programs on the rise in local universities

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Jeff Thurley teaches a night class at Goldey-Beacom College on entrepreneurship.

By Joyce L. Carroll
Special to Delaware Business Times

Whether one is a student testing the waters prior to applying to graduate school or a seasoned employee securing continuing education requirements, certificate programs are a great way to update one’s skills, particularly in an ever-evolving marketplace.

Delaware’s colleges and universities are augmenting their undergraduate and graduate programs with certificates, and broadening their reach as a result. The certificate tier of learning, while outside of the box regarding more conventional degree offerings, remains in alignment with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Requiring as little as a semester or two of course work, certificates are often a microcosm of the broader fields of study required for a degree – but often with a greater level of specificity. Moreover, the option serves as an excellent opportunity for partnerships between higher education and the private and public sector businesses and services within their respective regions, the state of Delaware and beyond.

Today, the state’s four-year institutions are taking advantage of a model more in keeping with Delaware’s two-year technical community college, that of a trades-oriented education.

“This is one of their primary focuses. We really needed to see how and where we could fit in,” said Eric Cheek, associate vice president within Delaware State University’s office of continuing education and summer programs.

With nearly 200 certificate-programs in place, DSU recently added to its staff, hiring someone to expand certificate offerings and its associated marketing efforts.

This targeted, industry-based learning, often led by instructors with hands-on experience in the fields in which they teach, has changed the landscape of higher ed.

“By our mission, we see [ourselves] as scholarly practitioners,” said Jim Wilson, vice president for academic affairs at Wilmington University, referring to the practice of employing adjunct instructors at WilmU. “There was a time an adjunct was looked down upon. Today it’s a model for many schools, and is the key to
our success,” he added.

“What’s happening is the credit hour is breaking down. Students once sat for three-credit courses. [Today there are] microcredits, micro-certifications,” Wilson said, adding that the phenomenon will continue to accelerate. “It has changed higher education a lot,” he continued.

“It’s a new model people are looking at. A lot of people don’t want to spend four years to earn a degree,”
Dr. Cheek said.

Recognized for its reputation as a business college, Goldey-Beacom in Wilmington has seven business-oriented certificate programs in place. “We find that a lot of students benefit from a resume refresh. This shows an employer [the student] has the ability to learn, the interest to learn, and isn’t afraid of training to enhance personal skills for his or her own development,” said Jessica Fehnel, academic affairs coordinator.

While some enrollees will participate in a particular certificate course seated side-by-side with students seeking more traditional degrees, others will take part in the many online offerings. The latter gives nine-to-fivers a more flexible means of completing a certificate program outside of their workday.

“More often than not, the [enrollee] already has a bachelor’s degree. These tend to be people looking for a particular skill to add onto an existing credential,” said Jim Broomall, associate vice provost for professional and continuing studies at the University of Delaware. The university launched its first certificate offering back in 1977 with its paralegal program.

Decisions around what certificates to offer come from both inside and outside the walls of the schools. Advisory boards may suggest a particular subject worthy of exploration via certificate. Trends are identified, and marketing research validates a need. At times, requests come from stakeholders or businesses seeking to keep their employees up-to-date on emerging technologies or advancements.

At DSU, partnerships with area veterans or workforce development groups often provide the seed. A marketing initiative is currently underway to see what employment needs veterans may have that could be met through a certificate. One area identified, said Dr. Cheek, was cybersecurity.

“It’s really about our faculty being in touch, keeping an ear to the ground. “¦ We have a pretty good track record with what students need,” Dr. Wilson said.

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