March 17, 2018

More Certificates—Less Research | From the Bell Tower

As individuals focus on access to careers, many potential college students are more likely to opt out for alternates such as certificates and badges rather than degrees. What do these new options mean for academic librarians?

As higher education unbundles and the options for pursuing it expand, the traditional diploma—earned in four years from one institution—may become just one of many options for entering the workforce. Students move through traditional higher education in a completely linear path. They begin as freshmen and navigate four years of courses towards the goal of obtaining a diploma, all accomplished at a single institution by meeting the designated requirements. Trends in higher education and career preparation point to decreasing interest in this standard route for those seeking more affordable options. They can now start, stop, transfer, reverse-transfer, go online, and combine any and all of the above. They can move between institutions, and where they start may be worlds apart from where they finish. Increasingly, students may avoid the four-year track all together with the growing availability of certificate programs.

The swirl and the certificate

In other words, what we’ve got now is the student swirl. Factors such as tuition, financial aid, jobs that require a shift from full to part time, family issues, and more all cause students to move between institutions as needed, and it’s anything but linear. At some point in the swirl, or possibly as a way of opting out of it entirely, a new wave of students is going the certificate route. In the past, some referred to this as vocational education. Most certificates take approximately a year to complete. You may be surprised to learn that over half of all certificates are earned at public higher education institutions, typically community colleges. As the cost and effort needed to obtain a college diploma continues to soar, with no certainty of a job to pay off the loans, it’s anticipated that more high school students will opt for certificate programs. While there will still be traditional students swirling about and among more traditional colleges and universities, it is interesting to ponder whether more students earning certificates means less students needing academic libraries.

Questioning the value of higher education

If the number one question about traditional higher education last year was “Who needs college?” the answer today might be “Not the people earning certificates.”  We can certainly debate the merits of having our citizens obtain a well-rounded, liberal arts grounded education that prepares them well to be smart, engaged citizens. The supporters of alternate forms of higher education might agree, but would argue that it’s just too darn expensive for most of those good-citizens-to-be. Instead, they might push the acquisition of a certificate. According to a new report, released by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, certificates make up 22 percent of all college awards. Compared to those enrolled in regular degree programs, certificates holders are the ones actually getting jobs. While those obtaining bachelor degrees still have the potential for greater lifelong earnings, having a job makes all the difference right now when it comes to paying back student loans.

Pay as you go

Certificates and college diplomas need not be mutually exclusive. Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, a provider of MOOCs as free college courses, offers an interesting scenario. In a taped interview from the Wired magazine “disrupted” conference, Thrun commented on the unaffordability of higher education by suggesting it no longer made sense to go for four or more years accumulating debt with no predictability of job opportunities. Instead, he said, people should begin by taking courses specifically designed to provide the desired career skills, in the first year of college for example. Then they would be equipped to get a job that would allow them to pay for additional college courses leading to an eventual diploma.

Thrun’s suggestion sounds a bit like what’s happening in certificates, except there is not enough being done to encourage students to continue past the one year. In fact, according to the Center on Education and Workforce report, as many as one-third of all those in certificate programs are coming from the opposite direction. They already have a bachelor’s or more advanced degree, and obtain certificates purely to find employment. In time Thrun’s idea may catch on, in the way that more students start at less expensive community colleges before transferring to a four-year college or university to complete their degrees. For many prospective students, it might make even more sense to start with a much less expensive certificate, get a job, gain earning power, and then enter the swirl in pursuit of the bachelor’s degree. It’s an interesting scenario with an even more interesting question for academic librarians. Where do they fit into this picture?

Impact on academic librarians

In a higher education landscape where increasing numbers of students opt out of traditional higher education for certificates or choose to swirl about from institution to institution, in what way could librarians effectively contribute to student academic success? Given the nature of the curriculum, certificate students are likely to have little or no need for academic library services. They’re learning how to test electrical circuits and stop leaking valves, not the sort of assignments for which you need library resources. Students who swirl still need access to library content for any research assignments, but there’s less clarity on where they’ll go for help. As they bounce between institutions, it is hard to picture an opportunity for library loyalty to develop, and it may be that their local public library is the one with which they’ll build a relationship.  What about those loftier goals related to helping college students learn how to formulate research questions, discover the world of search beyond Google and Bing, and become critical thinkers and lifelong learners? All of these things require concentrated, multi-year exposure to research skill building activity. It also helps when students build relationships with academic librarians. How can our profession find ways to fit our mission into the academic lifestyle of student swirlers and certificate holders?

 Academic librarians can get in the game

With the vast majority of students still attending our traditional colleges and universities, there’s no cause for immediate concern by academic librarians, but given the trends we need to contemplate and plan for how we serve the college students of the future.  Where I see a distinct possibility for staying connected with college students no matter where they start, stop, or re-start their education, is for academic librarians to leverage their existing consortia relationships to build new networks where non-traditional students can tap into academic library expertise. Some agreed upon general curriculum for information literacy could be implemented across institutions so that students, no matter where they are in the swirl, would connect with librarians who share a set of desired outcomes and methods for achieving them.

We’ll need to figure out how to break down the walls behind which our resources sit, so that students could engage with them no matter where they might happen to be in their degree path. This would require some serious effort to establish and implement, but it’s within the scope of our experience. Another approach might involve academic librarians creating and providing new types of certification or badges. Students would obtain library-generated certifications that could be applied at any institution at which they enroll, along with the possibility of earning course credit when enough library badges are accumulated. A plan of this sort would require cooperation on a scale beyond anything academic librarians have already accomplished. This is all part of the challenge of working in an evolving world of higher education in which establishing library relevance and demonstrating value will only get more difficult. Let’s hope we’re up to the challenge.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. maybe more partnerships with public libraries, since they have contacts with people over a lifetime and for more than assignments. for the long term, very bad that just some wealthy few have access to reliable well-researched information, eh? but word on the street is just work to get paid and stay afloat, be obedient, don’t think, or if you do– well, the reference system is still there…isn’t it?

  2. I really like the idea of a library badge! What an excellent idea, which could be applied to certificate and degree-seeking students alike. If the badge was not mandated as a degree requirement though, we will need to demonstrate to students and employers that the skills it represents matter (the library value argument in a slightly different context).