January 21, 2019

Rensselaer Hartford, other colleges turn to non-degree certificate programs to boost enrollment, meet employer needs

HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
HBJ Photo | Sean Teehan
Rensselaer Hartford Dean of Academics Aric Krause is planning to introduce an ambitious slate of some 20 certificate programs over the next three years.
Photo | Contributed
Rensselaer’s Hartford campus is located on Windsor Street.

When Aric Krause became dean of academics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Hartford about a year-and-a-half ago, he started an intensive regimen of in-person and teleconference meetings with employers in the area and worldwide.

"What we ask them is a very fundamental question: 'What does somebody need to be able … to be successful in your organization?' " Krause said. "And we collect that data … and build a program around that."

The result is an ambitious slate of some 20 new programs Rensselaer Hartford plans to start rolling out in May. The new offerings, which are currently pending approval from the state Office of Higher Education, run the gamut from data analytics to artificial intelligence, but they all share at least one thing in common: They are non-degree certificate programs that aim to train workers on skills most in-demand among employers.

Such certificate programs have been increasing in popularity at colleges and universities across the country, especially as enrollment among traditional four-year students continues to drop, forcing schools to recruit new demographics in need of training, said Jennifer Widness, president of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges.

More than 485,000 college certificates were granted by higher-ed institutions during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That's nearly 33,000 more than reported just three years before, a 6.8 percent increase.

Other local schools that offer certificate programs include the universities of Hartford and St. Joseph, Trinity and Goodwin colleges, and even UConn.

"As higher-ed comes under increased pressure to revise their business model and make sure that they have sustained enrollment, I think there's going to be increased opportunities for them to work with employers," Widness said.

This is Rensselaer Hartford's first foray into non-degree certificate programs, which often teach specific skills, are geared toward working professionals and take a fraction of the time to complete compared to a master's degree. The typical student they're trying to attract works full time and must have a bachelor's degree. Certificate programs also give students academic credits, which can add up to a full degree.

Rensselaer's certificate focus is part of a new strategy the school announced in 2014, when it said it would shutter its executive MBA program, which was suffering from poor enrollment, to focus more on mechanical engineering and information-technology curricula.

Rensselaer, at the time, said it hoped to have 1,200 students enrolled at the Hartford campus by 2024; as of Dec. 2014, it had only 185 graduate students. Rensselaer Hartford officials said they hope to have several hundred students in certificate programs, the first six of which could begin signing up pupils soon, pending state approval.

Stanley Dunn, vice provost and dean of graduate education at Rensselaer's flagship campus in Troy, N.Y., said the school has a long history of providing education for working professionals.

"In order for Rensselaer to be responsive to the industry that we serve, we have to be able to provide the background and the training and the skills that are in very specific areas that (students/professionals) can get on a short-term basis and turn around and immediately use in their jobs," said Dunn, adding that areas of study will include big data, internet of things, advanced manufacturing and automation.

Skills update

Rensselaer at Hartford was established by Rensselaer and United Technologies Corp. (UTC) in 1955, although back then the school was called the Hartford Graduate Center, and UTC was known as United Aircraft Corp. Since then, the school has specifically catered to working adults continuing their education.

Krause said he sees the school serving the dual constituencies of students at Rensselaer and employers that hire (or currently employ) them. That's why increasing the output of skills-specific, short-term programs makes sense, he said, noting that completing a master's program on a part-time basis typically takes about three years.

"When you're staring at that promotion or that new job, you don't necessarily have three years to wait to make that leap," Krause said. "I think the reason certificates are really proliferating is because both employers and students are looking for abilities that will get them just to the next (skill level)."

The setup is also beneficial to employers that can enroll workers in a program to update their skills, Widness said.

Rensselaer's first six certificate programs will cover production and health analytics, business intelligence, machine learning and artificial intelligence, systems engineering and lean quality. The rest, if approved, will be rolled out over the next three years.

Krause formulated the new programs, which will cost students $1,750 per credit hour, based on his exhaustive meetings with employers, he said. For example, when putting together the business-intelligence certificate, Krause and his team met with officials from dozens of the largest employers in need of those skills, including British Aerospace, Honeywell, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Aetna and Infosys, to name a few.

Those meetings led to a project-based curriculum, which is designed to allow students to participate in real-world analytics projects, Krause said.

While the new programs haven't yet debuted at the Hartford campus, Dunn is confident that certificate courses will become a mainstay at all of Rensselaer's campuses.

"I think there's more and more of a demand (for certificate programs), it's not just Hartford," Dunn said. "We do expect to be growing these out further."

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