Innovations That Inspire

Professional Education Beyond a Degree

Recognition Year(s): 2024
School: David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, California State University, Northridge
Location: United States

By finding effective mechanisms to address employers’ skill-gap concerns, the program seeks to transform the culture of the college while ensuring and enhancing the value of a degree as the best path toward social mobility.

Call to Action

Employer concerns about skills gaps have reached a peak. As the value of a four-year degree has come under scrutiny, a skills-first hiring movement has emerged.

A number of high-profile employers have eliminated the four-year degree as a hiring criterion. Some advocates for equity and inclusion have suggested that degree-based hiring discriminates against populations for whom obtaining a higher education is unfeasible. Other players have amplified the skills-first message to one of skills only, promoting training and certification programs as a more direct and less expensive path toward social mobility for target populations.

The movement to devalue a college education in favor of direct skill attainment has taken a toll. A recent Wall Street Journal survey showed that 56 percent of Americans doubt that a college degree is “worth the cost,” up from 40 percent just 10 years ago. Gallup reported that only 41 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 think it “very important to get a degree,” a large decline from 74 percent in 2003.

Yet, proponents of strictly skills-based hiring can fail to address the risk of obsolescence inherent in programs like certificates and certifications. In a market dominated by rapid-cycle technological change, social mobility can be unpredictable. Writing in the Washington Post, Princeton president Christopher L. Eisgruber defended college education, citing repeated analyses by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concluding that students who earn a four-year degree will enjoy an annual return on their investment of 14 percent over a 40-year career.

Innovation Description

Professional Education Beyond a Degree is both an offensive and defensive strategy, created to address the challenges facing higher education. It is a product of our commitment and responsibility to prepare students for a long-term career, and indeed for life. Our project envisions that prospective students and employers will recognize our graduates as valuable, in possession of current skills, and prepared for their first day of employment. We believe employers will pursue, hire, and promote our graduates for their abilities and for their grounding in a traditional discipline that has been developed through a broad curriculum incorporating cogent and considered learning objectives.

During the 2022–23 year, we expanded beyond existing corporate and institutional alliances, through which third-party content is integrated into the curriculum and co-curricular environment. Students earned highly marketable certificates from SAP, Microsoft, Google, Bloomberg, the IRS, and HubSpot, among other entities. Through a concerted effort, we identified LinkedIn Learning certificates that complemented the curriculum by aligning and reflecting the learning objectives of academic programs and courses. Faculty were encouraged to add these microcredentials to their syllabi while maintaining the established curriculum.

During the 2023–24 school year, the project has seen a major addition: the creation of nine co-curricular bootcamps, funded by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and designed and delivered by tenure-track faculty. These bootcamps incorporate instructional planning from IBM and Google and were created with Coursera certificates at their core. The camps have been made available—at no charge and with open admission—to all students currently enrolled in a degree program at any of the nine colleges of California State University, Northridge (CSUN).

Innovation Impact

During the 2022–23 year, students of the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics earned over 1,800 third-party certificates. These were obtained through for-credit course syllabus assignments, co-curricular activities, and professional development programs, or they were obtained through service learning and paid employment opportunities in Nazarian programs supporting the San Fernando Valley community of Los Angeles, California.

In the 2023–24 school year, these efforts have continued with our addition of Workforce of the Future: The Tech Skills Bootcamp Series. Approximately 143 CSUN students registered for one or more of the three fall-term bootcamps, which began in mid-October. Of those students, 37 percent registered for two bootcamps and 24 percent intend to participate in all three.

Along with the provost’s office and deans from all nine CSUN colleges, Nazarian College was able to promote and lead a campuswide conversation, discussing the strategy of its Professional Education Beyond a Degree project. Among the registered attendees, 48 percent came from sister colleges.

We expect the numbers of involved students to grow during the six spring-term bootcamps and anticipate welcoming participants from every discipline and career track. These students will earn highly marketable certificates while continuing to matriculate and progress toward graduation. The certificate offerings will include skills in data analytics; APIs; data collection and wrangling; relational databases; Python and SQL; cybersecurity; cloud computing; AI and machine learning; regression and linear programming; and domains, security, and controls.

We believe the innovation provides a tangible and pragmatic response to employer concerns about skills gaps and is presented in a fashion that both reinstates and reinforces the value of a four-year degree. The program offers students a well-worn path to long-term social mobility, the type for which CSUN is well known.