How Cheap Online Certificate Programs Like MIT’s “XSeries Certificate” Are Disrupting Higher Education

Getting schooled.
Sept. 19 2013 9:15 AM

The iTunes of Higher Education

The rapid rise of online “certificates” and how they threaten traditional university degree programs. 

A general view during the college commencement ceremony for Westminister College on June 1, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
As cheap, single-course certifications edge in on expensive, four-year degrees, ceremonies like this might become less and less common.

Photo by Natalie Cass/Getty Images

It’s nearly impossible to get into MIT, very expensive to enroll there, and exceedingly hard to graduate, which are some of the reasons why MIT degrees are so coveted. But very soon you’ll be able to take a series of online courses in computer science and earn an official certificate from one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world, all for only a few hundred dollars—and without having to meet any admissions requirements. MIT will be launching these XSeries Certificate programs in the next few months, including one in “supply chain management.”

MIT, in a press release, says the new programs are part of its effort to “reimagine the building blocks” of education as universities begin to deliver more of their content digitally.

Yet the program is also part of something much larger: the beginning of the unbundling of the American university. Much in the way that 12-song albums gave way to 99-cent iTunes purchases, universities are now under pressure to offer more ways to slice off smaller bits of education.

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Degrees, the currency of higher education, have traditionally been traded in large denominations: four-year bachelor’s degree, two-year master’s degree, five-year (or much more) Ph.D. But a variety of forces, from skyrocketing tuition to the proliferation of online classes, are now compelling universities to rethink that approach. High fees are keeping many would-be students from enrolling in conventional degree programs, while universities are under pressure to unlock new revenues.

Universities are also wary of diluting the value of their traditional degrees, so they are creating smaller coinage: sequences, certificates, and the like. These aren’t recognized as formal degrees. Yet, at many institutions, they have a tantalizing appeal: a way to share a little bit of a university’s prestige with the masses while bringing in some extra cash. Most universities have already put a chunk of their courses online, so crafting a new certificate program allows them to simply repackage that same content into a smaller bundle, then sell the new format. In MIT’s case, it is looking to find an economically sustainable way to deliver its massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which so far have been offered for free.

Columbia University has offered certificates for years through its School of Continuing Education. Recently it has begun to roll out more of them in areas such as human rights and United Nations studies. Traditionally its certificates were granted to students who attended classes on campus, but the university is now taking some certificate programs it already had, such as business and bioethics, and putting them online in order to reach more students. This fall the engineering school launched a new certification program in data science. Tuition for the four required classes—taken in person, not online — runs about $20,000. Compare that with about 10 classes and roughly $50,000 tuition for a typical Columbia engineering master’s degree.

Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says much of the growth in these smaller programs comes from schools trying to wring more revenues out of courses they already offer. “They’re thinking, ‘We’ve got this content, so let’s run the flag up and see if anyone salutes.’ ”

Many of these certificate programs have been around for decades and most are linked to moving up the ladder in specific trades, such as construction, real estate, or nursing. But in the past few years, their number and breadth have swelled. Drexel University in Philadelphia, which has well-established certificate programs in areas like advanced teaching and engineering management, recently added one in creativity and innovation. The prestigious McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas is considering adding an online business certificate that could be taken by undergraduates attending other schools, according to a university official.

Carnevale co-authored a report last year that found that the number of certificates awarded surpassed the 1 million mark in 2010, a more than threefold increase from 1994. Certificates are now more common than associate or master’s degrees.

Few schools have marketed certificates as aggressively as the University of California–Los Angeles. UCLA’s Extension division already had been offering them, but two years ago the university partnered with a for-profit company to ramp up enrollment. The company, Empowered, began migrating UCLA’s certificate programs onto the iPad, where they are delivered through a specially built app.

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