Associate’s Degree or Industry Certification: Helping Students Select the Right Credential to Meet Employer Needs

By Marcus Williams

All too often, academic advisors quickly begin searching college catalogs for degrees and certificates to help students on the path to a job. However, is it really in the student’s best interest to not start by researching or reaching out to employers to identify their technical needs? Sometimes, the best option is not for the student to immediately begin working toward a college degree, but rather getting started on a path toward an industry-recognized certification, such as those in network security, human resources, project management, health care, computing technology, and a myriad of other fields. Not to say that a college degree is the wrong choice, but it is beneficial for academic advisors and career service professionals to understand that employer needs will usually be the final determining factor in hiring. These needs often differ between the public and private job sectors.


The Private Sector

When meeting employer needs in the private sector, an industry certification frequently gives job seekers an advantage over two-year college credentials for several reasons.

  • A certification often requires renewal every two years or less, suggesting that holders are current in the latest technology or training; it shows a continual learning aspect employers might value
  • Certifications can often be completed in months, compared to the two to four-year commitment required to obtain a degree, which allows the job seeker to enter the market faster
  • Certification cost is lower in comparison to most colleges and universities, and more financially feasible for those with less income
  • Certifications often require less time to complete and could potentially give promotional preference to those that are currently employed due to their newly acquired expertise
  • The choice of a certification may better fit entrepreneurs and small business start-ups as compared to the traditional business models in which a degree curriculum is often based.


The Public Sector

Industry certifications are also valuable in the public sector, where the advantages offer similar benefits to employers as in the private sector. However, in the public sector, degrees are often mandatory to meet job requirements. Large businesses within an institution’s service area are usually well-known, and credential needs for employers are often discovered simply by searching the web for their job postings. A degree has several advantages:

  • A degree demonstrates a broader knowledge in reading, writing, math, and critical thinking, in addition to technical skill attainment.
  • It often gives an employee preference for promotion when competing for positions in middle and upper management.
  • Networking opportunities and work experience can be gained from internships embedded in the degree curriculum.
  • The reputation of the academic institution in a specific industry or career field is often known within the geographical or functional areas.


Institutional Culture and Training

How might an academic advisor or career services professional in community colleges better balance the student's search for a certification or degree? The current culture of most community colleges is influenced by the need to increase student enrollment due to constant decreases in state funding. This has in turn resulted in academic advisors focusing on degree programs for incoming freshmen to generate tuition income. Future training for these staff professionals should place emphasis on pinpointing the student’s career goals, specifically for the industry and potential employers where they intend to seek employment. Some of the training topics might include:

  • Active listening;
  • Student accountability and the role in researching careers and employers;
  • Identifying new industry trends and credentials desired for employment;
  • Stackable credentials (industry certifications that complement degrees offered).

At most institutions, the college-industry collaboration does take place, but it may be limited to gathering trend data needed to update a degree curriculum. The conversation needed to identify employability needs does not always occur.


The Impact of Location on Training

Community colleges are often physically structured with a main campus and one or more satellite campuses for a given service area. Often times at least one of these sites provides student testing and in some cases certification training in a number of subject areas. Because of distance between campuses, or lack of communication between academic and non-academic departments, these services are often not well known to or understood by advisors and campus career specialists.


In order to help improve communication and awareness of resources offered on other campuses, academic advising and career service departments should consider implementing the following processes:

  • Visit other campuses as part of the staff orientation process and training.
  • Invite off-site campus staff to division and departmental meetings.
  • Ensure off-site campus staff are included on group email distribution lists.
  • Include off-site staff in the student orientation process.


These processes improve the resource knowledge of all staff members and begin to shift the culture to one that is more student-centered, producing more employable and successful students as an end result.


Better Communication and Collaboration

In summary, career service professionals and advisors often overlook options in credentialing for reasons that stem from lack of training and pressure to increase enrollment due to financial reasons. Trends in the public and private job markets are changing constantly due to the shift from big business to smaller ones that are originating from a growing entrepreneurial population. As these trends increase, so will the training needs of professionals in higher education in order to meet the employability needs of the students. This will require better communication and collaboration between postsecondary leadership and employers that extends beyond curriculum to include talks about whether degrees or industry credentials would be better suited to meet current and future skill needs. This collaboration must also extend to off-site campuses and personnel who offer testing and training in these areas. Academic advisors and career service staff may be the first contact for students looking for career guidance. Their ability to match students with the appropriate recommendation for guidance and direction is critical to the success of the student, as well as the practicality and employability of the credential they may seek.



Marcus WilliamsMarcus Williams is the Director of Grants at NorthWest Arkansas Community College (NWACC). During his seven years of employment at NWACC, he has also worked in Academic Advising, Institutional Effectiveness, and currently manages the Perkins Career and Technical Education Grant. This article itself was written as part of his GCDF credentialing process through NCDA. Prior to starting a career in higher education, Marcus served eight years in the US Navy as a cryptologist and intelligence analyst. He may be contacted at mwilliams14@nwacc.edu.


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John Long   on Friday 06/01/2018 at 12:30 PM

Wonderful article Marcus, thank you for sharing some powerful information. Community/Technical Colleges across the country offer a robust array of programs leading to good paying jobs. A diploma, certificate or associate's degree program can launch an individual into an in-demand job and serve as a strong foundation for future academic and career growth. If the choice is between a certificate in underwater welding or cybersecurity or an associate's degree for physical therapist assistant vs. a bachelor's degree in the very general category of business management...I vote for the community/technical school program as the most viable place to launch.

Anre’e C. Alexander   on Friday 06/01/2018 at 06:46 PM

Very nice and informative article Mr. Williams!

Heather C. Robertson   on Friday 06/01/2018 at 08:02 PM

I appreciate the emphasis and attention on industry certification options for students post-graduation and in to higher education. As you stated, while a degree may not be a bad idea, it may not fully address the needs or wants of the learner. I believe we will continue to see more emphasis on this going forward. Thank you.

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