The university educational process is one that is meant to broaden the mind, increase exposure to different areas, teach students to think outside of the box, encourage exploration, develop soft skills, and to make students better prepared to tackle more learning such as moving on to trade skills needed for specific fields. The university program, however, is not meant to provide trade skills themselves (the skills used in specific trades), that is the role of a trade school. Students leaving universities with degrees are intended to not be employable due to specific skill sets learned at college, but to be well prepared to learn on the job or move on to additional education for a specific job.
In the last two decades, led primarily by for profit schools looking to make money quickly without regards to the integrity of the university system, there has been a movement, especially in the United States, for trade schools to get accredited (an extremely low bar requirement that has no useful standing outside of legal qualifications for educational minimums and should never be see as a mark of quality) and sell trade degrees as if they were traditional university degrees. This has been especially prevalent in IT fields where certifications are broadly known and desired, acquiring properly skilled educational staff is expensive and essentially impossible to do at the scale necessary to run a full program, degree areas are easily misunderstood by those entering their college years and where the personality traits most common to people going into the field sadly makes those people easy prey for collegiate marketing drives. The promise of easy classes, double dipping (getting the certs you need anyway then getting a bonus degree for the effort) and the suggestion that by having a degree and certs all at once will open doors and magically provide career options that pay loads of money triggers an emotional response that makes potential students less able to make rational financial and education decisions, additionally. It’s a predatory market, not an altruistic one.
Certificates play a fundamentally different role than a university education does. Unlike universities, certification is about testing very specific skills, often isolated by product or vendor, things that should never appear in any university program. Certification may be broad (and closer to collegiate work) in certs like the CompTIA Network+ which tests a broad range of basic networking knowledge and nothing specific to a vendor or product, but is still overly specific to a single networking technology or group of technologies to be truly appropriate for a university, but is, at the very least, leaning in that direction. But more common certifications such as Microsoft MCSE, Cisco’s CCNA, CompTIA’s Linux+ or A+ are all overly product and vendor specific, far too “which button do I press” and far too little “what does the underlying concepts mean” for collegiate work.
Certifications are trade related and a great addition to university studies. University work should prepare the student for broad thinking, critical thinking, problem solving and core skills like language, maths and learning. Then applying that core knowledge to certifications should make achieving certifications easier and meaningful. University should show a background in soft skills and broadness, while certifications should show trade skills and specific task capabilities.
Warning signs that a university is behaving improperly would include, in regards to this area of concern, overly specific programs that sound as if they are aimed at technologies like a degree in “Cisco Networking” or “Microsoft Systems”, if certifications are achieved during the university experience (double dipping – giving out a degree simply for having gotten certs) or if the program leans towards an indication of preparing someone “for the job” or expected to “get the student a great job upon completion” or is expected to “increase salary”. These are not goals of proper university programs.
Critically evaluating any educational program is very important as educational investments are some of the largest that we make in our lives, both monetarily and in terms of our time commitments. Ensuring that the programs are legitimate, valuable, meet both our own goals and proper goals, will be seen as appropriate by those that will see them in the future (such as hiring managers) are very important. There are many aspects over which we must evaluate the university experience, this is only one but it is one that is a newer problem, suddenly very prevalent and one that specifically targets IT and technical hopefuls so requires extra diligence in our industry.