The Rising Value of Short-Term Courses in Colleges and Universities

Feb 12, 2021

Students are embracing skills training and non-degree programs.

One of the biggest complaints among higher-ed graduates has been the lack of work readiness. The growing disconnect between the purpose and the outcomes of degree programs has led students, parents, and even industry to question the veracity of colleges in equipping learners with skills to make a meaningful contribution at work.

Colleges and universities are trying to combat this image by offering short-term, industry-recognized courses, or by making their existing credentials industry-ready.

North Texas University recently joined hands with Dallas Cowboys, a professional American Football team to offer an online sports entertainment management program that includes three immersive bootcamps with Cowboys executives. AT&T, an American telecom conglomerate is working with universities to develop short courses for working adults.

The partnership of higher education institutions with industry players is the be-all and end-all of the spiking interest in short-term, non-degree programs.

In a Strada Public Viewpoint survey, one in every five Americans said they plan to enrol in an education program, and their top preferences were skills training courses followed by non-degree credentials. Guild Education reports a 149% rise in applications for certificate programs.

Source: Guild Education

The pandemic alone isn’t responsible for this change. Moody, the credit rating firm, has projected that the demand for nanodegree and certificate programs will keep growing even after the pandemic.

Michael Macklin, Associate VC for Workforce Partnerships, Colorado Community College System says,

“From before the pandemic, the Colorado Community College System is seeing a greater number of students sitting out a year from their planned enrollments in 4-year programs and are looking for quicker upskilling routes through short-term education options.”

Why short-term courses are piquing interest

Four aspects are moving the demographics in higher education from traditional, full-paying degree programs to alternative credentials.

No. 1: Shifting preferences and motivations for the type of education

While the demand for education has risen, the confidence in its value has declined. Sounds odd? Not so much.

Undergraduate enrollments decreased by 4.4% in 2020, continuing a downward trend of the last decade (Inside HigherEd). This fall is attributable to the weakening public confidence in the value of 4- and 2-year traditional degree programs.

Call them aspiring learners, the new age students are exhibiting a penchant for non-degree programs as they are considered better placed for helping them transition from students to practitioners.

No. 2: Lifelong learning, 100-year career, and disrupted workforce

The interest in short-term courses is also hugely driven by working adults. Technological changes coupled with people working past retirement age are making the education and employment continuum an imperative. Disrupted workers – who lost jobs due to crisis – are looking at short-term education options to re-enter the job market.

No. 3: Elimination of time and logistics barriers

Despite that over 50% of adults in the US, i.e. nearly 100 million Americans, believe they need more education to advance their career (Guild Education), few eventually pursue education and training as logistics remain a major obstacle (graver than cost concerns). People struggle to find time to make learning a part of their busy lives. Short courses, by their design, brings in the flexibility factor adults need.

No. 4: Employers underwriting the costs of reskilling and upskilling

Driven by the need to bridge the skills gap, and government incentives for funding employees’ education and training, employers are increasingly providing tuition-assistance (TA) and tuition-reimbursement (TR) to their people. As per the Department of Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, employers can provide USD 5,250 annually in education benefits tax-free. This is boosting workforce interest in enrolling for further education.

Revenue Service, employers can provide USD 5,250 annually in education benefits tax-free. This is boosting workforce interest in enrolling for further education.

The How’s of Designing Short-term Courses

Demand galore, is it beneficial for colleges and universities to introduce microlearning and nanodegree education options? The answer is a resounding yes. Many trailblazers have already begun.

Source: Guild Education

The most important element for higher-ed institutions to successfully position themselves as the providers of short-term courses is taking into consideration students’ perspectives.

Student Motivations

Two types of outlooks underlie student motives for taking up short-form learning: “to help me step-up” and “to help me extend myself.” The former is where one is looking to make a change from existing career. They may believe what they are doing isn’t working for them and would like to jump ships. This is mostly about reskilling. The latter is about challenging yourself and taking your current know-how of a domain to another level: what we call upskilling.

Students looking to step up and reskill will enter new industries. So, the course structure and instructional design must be such that give them foundational training in the subject. In contrast, for students seeking to grow their current skills, course design must be closely aligned with industry and provide advanced knowledge to them. Curating courses by taking these motivations as a vantage point will benefit institutions and drive student enrollments.

The Upshot: Must-have features

Of all the things higher-ed can include in short-term course solutions, these are some aspects they absolutely cannot afford to miss.

  • Differentiated by Agenda: Maintain different tones for courses aimed at reskilling and those geared toward upskilling.

  • Searchability: Finding the right short-term program is often daunting for learners. Sort the problem by making courses searchable with filters like reskilling/upskilling, industry vertical, credential terminology (say, bootcamp used in coding), etc.

  • Flexibility: Keep the time-required and process of course completion simple. Part-time, self-guided, and flex-time options can be offered.

  • Stackability: Colleges and universities can make their short-term courses more attractive by making them stackable. It entails curating microlearning and nanodegree courses that can be stacked into credits toward a full degree qualification, if one so desires.

  • Career Support: Ensure that the short-term credential you offer has value in the job market. And provide ongoing mentoring and coaching support toward that – for the subject matter problems as well as job placement and career readiness.

Short-term courses will be very important going forward as the change agents of reshaping the future of higher-ed and rekindling the trust in education. When curating them, ask not what you can provide for students, but what students need to be provided with.