Online Certificate Programs Gaining Popularity

Online education has conquered another niche, The New York Times reports. While online-only four-year degree programs are still fairly rare, online short-term certificate programs are gaining in popularity. When employers demand employees with a more specialized set of skills, turning to an online program allows many to buff their resumes while retaining their current employment.

Joel Shapiro, associate dean of academics at Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies, calls the growing popularity of online certificate programs the "unbundling of education." Although massive online open courses are what has drawn the most attention when it comes to online higher ed revolution, Shapiro is certain that the smaller certificate courses are unmistakably part of the same trend.

Whether private or public, institutions offering online certificates typically require a student to take four to six online courses and pass a proctored exam. The course work can often be counted toward a master's degree. Certificate programs do not usually have prerequisites for entry, but enrollees typically have a bachelor's degree.

"The student adds a skill and gets a stamp of academic approval for the effort," said Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield. "It can be compared to course work for renewing a license to practice, but more often it is a bridge to an academic degree."

Jim Fong, who works for the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, a group made up of over 350 colleges and universities, sees many students doing just that – taking certificate programs as a stepping stone to a master's degree. Diana Wu, executive director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education has similar observations. She notes that students turn to certificate programs in order to quickly pick up a specific skill that might ease their way into full-time employment or up a promotion ladder. Then they use that knowledge as a prerequisite for a graduate program later.

The Berkeley Extension began offering online certificates about a decade ago, Dr. Wu said. Each course costs $700 to $800, and total costs range from $2,400 for a professional editing certificate to as much as $7,600 for the more intensive certificate program in clinical research conduct and management. Kyle Cameron, 27, decided to reorient his career by earning a certificate in accounting from the Berkeley Extension. A college graduate, Mr. Cameron chose the Berkeley program because he felt its requirement of a proctored exam would give the certificate more credibility among employers.

"I got a job offer a month before I received my certificate in September 2012," he said. He moved on to a new accounting job in January at a truck dealership in San Leandro, Calif.

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