For decades, the typical path through higher education involved two stops along the way to a career: a four-year undergraduate degree followed by a one- or two-year masters. For certain professions, the journey was extended to include a doctoral program. But per the National Student Clearinghouse’s research, graduate enrollments declined in Spring 2023 by up to 1.6 percent while 2.6 percent more graduate students opted for certificate programs. On the undergrad side, certificate enrollment increased by 2.5 percent. It’s a notable shift in the traditional higher education experience, and it’s sure to have measurable impacts for colleges and universities.

Upskilling Faster

In today’s fast-moving, global economy, there’s little room for stagnation or complacency. With technologies like AI revolutionizing entire industries seemingly overnight, students need to master new tools while still acquiring tried and true principles they can apply to the real-world scenarios they will face daily in the workplace. Though they may be lacking in experience compared to older peers, job candidates can set themselves apart with certificates that demonstrate the kind of proficiencies employers everywhere are desperate to find.

According to an article by Lindsay Daugherty for Inside Higher Ed, “Certificate programs allow earlier opportunities for individuals to receive a credential and move into skilled work, which can make college more economically feasible for low-income students. Stackable credentials also provide more structured education and credentialing in some fields that have traditionally had limited opportunities for upskilling and career building.”

Closing Knowledge Gaps and Building Career Capital

Opting for a certificate instead of a two- or four-year degree can accelerate finding a first or second job in a particular industry. Certificates also provide value for more seasoned, veteran professionals eager to keep themselves on the cutting edge of their field. Some companies have offered tuition reimbursement programs that incentivize leadership-level professionals to obtain an MBA, graduate degree, or even their doctorate.

But such long-form programs can be difficult to complete when an adult student is also juggling the daily responsibilities of their job, a family, and a social life. This is where certificates offer a more flexible alternative with similar career-advancing benefits.

In a blog post for Forbes, Kayla Missman stated that “With a shorter, more focused certificate, you can refine your skills in a particular area or close a gap in your knowledge. Certificates allow you to stay competitive in a constantly changing market by keeping on top of developments in your industry, such as new technology or environmental considerations, without going back to school for a full degree.” She went on to summarize the main benefits of certificates over a full master’s degree as more flexibility, lower cost, and easier application. These apply to CTE programs collated by the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE).

Meeting the Demand for Skills-Based Learning

Vocational programs were once viewed as lesser than traditional, four-year degrees. But economic data shows while the return on investment of certain programs can take many years, the high starting salaries for plumbers, electricians, and other practical trades makes certificate programs a solid bet. In fact, those who complete them can start earning six figures almost immediately, instead of climbing the corporate ladder to achieve a similarly high income.

In an article for Manage HR, former Stanley Black & Decker Chief Talent Officer Minh Hua stated “2.4 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled through 2028 according to a study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. Add to the mix demographics: the Baby Boomers leaving the workforce over the next 10 years are expected to vacate about 40% of skilled jobs.”

In the study Hua cites, it’s predicted there will be 2.4 million unfilled positions by 2028. The good news is, there is hope. “The combination of human expertise and people-centric technology holds the promise of solving the great skills gap while accelerating socio-economic mobility,” he asserted.

Vocational certificates, which provide a new twist on the old apprenticeship model, educate the next generation of skilled workers rapidly and at scale. And it’s a model that holds great promise for fulfilling the millions of jobs that either are or soon will be open in one of the biggest growth sectors of the American economy.

Supporting Student Success with Technology

The second element of Hua’s proposed solution to the skills gap problem in manufacturing and trades is “people-centric technology.” To adequately educate, guide, and support the coming influx of students seeking professional certificates, higher education staff must have tools that help them work more efficiently and effectively in their daily student service and business activities.

The ability to respond quickly to queries about a financial aid application, pinpoint precise information in a transcript, or facilitate fast online forms registration delivers a better student experience, which gives a school a competitive advantage. When a document management system is in place, it’s easier and quicker to enroll incoming freshmen, process transfers, and keep current students enrolled in their certificate programs.

Francis Tuttle Technology Center is one of Oklahoma’s 29 Technology Center districts providing CareerTech (CTE) training for high school students and adult learners, as well as services for business and industry customers. For years, Francis Tuttle’s admissions team struggled to find a document management and workflow system to effectively support a complex high school application process. They needed a solution that would simplify enrollment for students, improve communication with high school counselors, students and parents; and reclaim precious time in the workday for Admissions and Registrar staff.

Integrating Softdocs document management, eForms, and process automation with the campus’ custom SIS changed everything. No longer burdened with paper pushing, Francis Tuttle Admissions staff could refocus their energies on increasing student enrollment and offering students additional guidance during this stressful time of year. Softdocs lets students own their enrollment process to a large degree, instead of relying on high school counselors to apply for them.

Another significant win for the Francis Tuttle team is clean, accurate data made possible by automated forms and processes. “Previously, our Registrar’s Office would manually enter all the data from the student’s application. Now with the click of a button, they can import the data rather than typing it all in,” said Andrew Hammontree, Director of Student Administrative Services. “The less manual intervention we have, the fewer errors we will have and that will lead to cleaner data.”

Using technology to enable efficiencies like these allows CTE institutions to maximize their resources to better manage the rise in student interest and enrollment. As certificate programs continue to gain momentum in the higher education space, technology that simplifies the student experience will continue to play an important role in driving institutional success.