Job seekers turn to 'mini' degrees in hopes of big career boost

Higher Education
by Laura Edghill
Posted 9/23/15, 02:55 pm

Nanodegree programs, the latest education offering from Udacity, promise inexpensive, efficient, career-retraining tools for a variety of popular tech industry jobs. The nontraditional program is part of a wider push to tie higher education more closely to available jobs across all sectors of the workforce.

But new programs like nanodegrees, as well as other “bootcamp style” certification courses, vary widely and are offered by a range of third-party providers, many so new they have no data yet on graduates’ success rate. At the most basic level, so-called microdegrees offer potential employers a first-round vetting device to sort out job applicants from those who lack basic skills. But the degrees alone offer no real insight into a candidate’s depth or breadth of experience, or their creativity—all of which are powerful potential indicators of future success in job performance.

“Whether it’s a nanodegree, a badge, or an assessment engine, these new schemes beg a few questions,” noted InfoWorld’s editor-in-chief Eric Knorr. “If you need a Python programmer, it’s nice to see that a candidate has some sort of microcertification or has attended a reputable bootcamp, but it’s hard to see the utility beyond shaking out the first round of candidates.”

Udacity, one of the original producers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), designed nanodegrees to provide narrowly focused industry credentials that would appeal to students trying to break into the tech industry.

“I’m the least experienced person on my engineering team at Google,” Kelly Marchisio told The New York Times after earning a “full-stack developer” nanodegree. “I frankly might be one of the least experienced engineers at Google, period.”

Marchisio was originally employed by Google as a customer service representative but had nurtured a desire to learn coding ever since her days at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. She took the Google job to pay the bills but wondered if a career beyond customer service in the tech industry was a viable possibility.

“I’m super excited with efforts to get girls and young people into coding, but for a long time I’ve thought, ‘What about me?’” Marchisio told The Times. “I’m here now, I’m already in the work force. You can have me tomorrow if you just train me.”

Marchisio’s nanodegree enabled her to jump directly from Google’s customer service department to software development.

The “full-stack developer” nanodegree is one of eight current options Udacity offers. The company developed all the programs with industry partners like AT&T to ensure they produce skills directly compatible with specific industry needs for some of the economy’s most in-demand jobs. 

The courses cost $200 per month, and most students who finish earn their nanodegrees in about five months. For students who successfully complete the program, Udacity refunds half the tuition costs. But after offering the degrees for a year, the graduation rate is only 25 percent.

While that may not seem like much, it isn’t far off the national for-profit institution graduation rate—32 percent. Most degrees offered by for-profit institutions also are highly specialized, industry-specific credentials, but tuition costs average more than $20,000 per year for those degrees.

In response to skyrocketing tuition costs and industries with pressing hiring demands, some four-year colleges are beginning to offer competency-based education, rather than traditional credit-based degrees. Schools like Western Governors University offer curriculum priced at a flat monthly rate based on length of enrollment, rather than the number of courses taken. Students progress through the coursework at their own pace and move on as soon as they demonstrate mastery of the subject material. Similar to nanodegrees, the faster students move through courses, the more economical the degree becomes.

But while nanodegrees and competency-based degrees seem to be carving out a niche in the fast-paced, competitive modern hiring world, they are no substitute for a well-rounded college experience, said professor Fiona M. Hollands of Columbia University’s Teachers College in an interview with The New York Times

“We still need rounded people, which you can’t get through mini-certificate courses,” he said. “But we also have an economy to run here.”

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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