Graduate Certificate Programs Provide In-Demand Skills for Master’s Students

Graduate students wanting "right now" industry skills to complement their foundational studies should consider adding a certificate to their degree.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on February 20, 2024
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  • A new report sheds light on the growing field of nontraditional graduate credentials.
  • These microcredentials complement master's degree programs with industry-ready skills training.
  • Many certificate students are also enrolled as current master's students, but some use certificate programs to test the graduate waters.
  • Programs can be costly and frequently don't offer financial aid, which limits student diversity.

A new study aims to bring clarity to the rapidly growing world of graduate microcredentials, particularly certificate programs.

Just how valuable are they in the workplace?

Complementing Master's Degrees, Not Replacing Them

In its new report, "Microcredentials and the Master's Degree: Understanding the National Landscape to Support Learners and the Workforce," the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) sheds light on the growing phenomenon of nontraditional graduate-level credentials.

These include badges, bootcamps, and other programs that don't lead to degrees, but the report focuses mainly on certificates.

To conduct its research, the council's team surveyed graduate deans, held focus groups, and interviewed university administrators and employers.

What emerged was a series of findings that confirmed the value of certificates, though with this caveat: Microcredentials are "best understood as part of a larger ecosystem including graduate degrees, not as an alternative to graduate degrees."

In other words, these alternatives aren't replacing master's degrees anytime soon.

But they do add value, including for students already enrolled in degree programs. In fact, most students pursuing these certificates are current master's degree students, CGS' Enyu Zhou, one of the report's authors, told BestColleges.

Such credentials provide "rapid upskilling" for students, particularly in fields with high demand such as teaching, nursing, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence.

A student in a graduate program studying biology, for example, might concomitantly pursue a certificate in data science as a complementary way to gain industry-ready knowledge.

"If you're a student currently enrolled in a master's or even a doctoral degree program and you're looking to signal skills for your career …, you should be looking at some other parallel certificates and badges while you're enrolled," CGS' Matthew Linton, another report author, told BestColleges.

At the same time, Linton noted, some students use certificate programs as on-ramps to master's degrees, testing the waters and strengthening their qualifications for admission. That sort of pacing works better for some students, he said, allowing them to gain knowledge and credentials incrementally as their careers warrant while spacing out the associated financial requirements.

A word of caution, however, for those students hoping to slide seamlessly into a degree program carrying credits from the certificate — only half of the certificate programs are "stackable" and count toward degrees, the report reveals.

Employers Favor University-Based Programs

Universities launch certificate programs to address specific workforce needs, often collaborating with employers in the program's design. It's no wonder, then, that 75% of employers surveyed said university-based certificates are of high quality while only 13% and 26% said the same of online providers and corporate providers, respectively.

That's the good news if you're earning a university certificate or considering one. The tempering news is that only 20% of employers actually seek candidates with certificates.

"It wasn't that employers were hiring people who had graduate certificates," Linton said, "but instead they were offering them to their current employees as benefits."

Curiously, employers put more of a premium on certificates for candidates with only bachelor's degrees, the study found, especially in high-tech fields. At the graduate level, the degree itself provides more evidence that a candidate possesses the requisite foundational knowledge and skills.

Yet here's a confounding thought: If universities know what employers seek, why don't they just bake those courses into the degree curriculum itself? Why resort to add-on certificates to fill the gap?

It's all about timeliness and flexibility, Linton suggests.

"The approval process to make substantive changes to a master's degree curriculum may take a couple of years," he said. "And there's a feeling that if we can fast-track this into a badge or certificate, we can get those skills and competencies to students faster while we work on updating the curriculum for the degree program."

Program Costs Limit Diversity

Linton said he and his colleagues approached this study thinking that universities were growing these programs exponentially to boost enrollment and, to some extent, generate cash.

It turns out that's not necessarily the case.

Among the programs surveyed, the median enrollment was 12. This should give pause to institutions considering microcredential programs as a panacea for projected enrollment losses thanks to an enrollment cliff whose ripple effects promise to affect graduate education later this decade.

But from the student's perspective, small is good.

"I think institutions are seeing the value of having small cohorts that are really targeted to specific employment needs and workforce outcomes to make sure they're providing good returns on investments for students," Linton said.

Another key finding relates to student diversity — or lack thereof. Although certificate programs are likely to increase the representation of women, part-time students, and older students, the report says, the same isn't true for underrepresented minorities. Only about 20% of survey respondents said certificate programs aided student diversity.

Perhaps that's owing in part to the lack of available funding.

Only about 57% of post-baccalaureate certificate students are fully eligible for financial aid, the study found. And at more than half of the institutions surveyed, tuition costs per credit hour for certificates were the same as those for degree programs.

So unless an employer offers to pay for the credential, earning a certificate can be an expensive proposition. Naturally, tuition varies from one institution to the next, costing as little as $1,300 for a certificate from Arizona State University or as much as $33,000 if you want one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Several students interviewed for the CGS report said they wouldn't enroll in nondegree programs without financial assistance from an employer or the university.

The report concludes by acknowledging that the universe of post-baccalaureate microcredentials continues to take shape and that the perception of value remains in question. Linton predicted universities will eventually absorb much of the existing certificate content into their degree curricula, especially in fields such as computer science and data analytics, perhaps jettisoning some certificate programs in the process.

Still, Linton foresees an ongoing need for microcredentials as new knowledge continues to emerge.

"Where I do think there's going to be some real possible future value for certificates and other microcredentials going forward," he said, "is in areas of innovation where, if you need skills fast in the next development of AI or whatever else comes out … certificates and badges are going to be a good way of getting that."