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STRATFORD, Conn. — A Yale-educated evolutionary biologist and a member of the faculty at Catholic, liberal arts-focused Sacred Heart University, Geffrey Stopper also oversees one of its newest courses: Advanced Craft Beverage Brewing.
Sacred Heart is launching career-focused programs like this to give its students vocational credentials that can speed them into their first jobs while expanding the university’s market to older adults who are hoping to get new ones.
After all, there are 115 breweries in Connecticut, according to the Connecticut Brewers Guild, employing about 6,000 people. But there are no other formal training programs in the state to cover such things as brewery management and brewing theory.
“You need to know how enzymes work and how acids work and apply equations to what you’re doing,” Stopper said of the program, standing on a catwalk overlooking fermentation tanks and repurposed wine and whiskey barrels filled with beer in the cavernous warehouse of Two Roads Brewery, where the course is taught.
The strategy of adding career and technical education is being quietly rolled out by several traditional higher education institutions, including a growing number of liberal arts colleges that are responding to student and parent demands for a return on their tuition investment by adding practical training that has proven value to employers.
“They get skilled workers, and we get to expand the services we offer,” said Rupendra Paliwal, Sacred Heart’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Only 26 percent of working U.S. adults who went to college strongly agree that the education they received is relevant to their work, a survey by the Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights found.
Americans appear to like the idea of embedding career and technical education into academic degree programs. In a survey conducted by Quest Research and the Kaplan test-prep company, they were four times more likely to say they’d hire an English major with a credential in cybersecurity than an English major without one.
“We don’t want to lose the richness of the liberal arts. At the same time, we want to prepare you for life out there,” said John Petillo, Sacred Heart’s president.
Colleges and universities see this as an important way to bring in revenue, too, by finding new customers for their principal product: education.
They can get graduates coming back for additional training that qualifies them for raises and promotions; win contracts from employers to teach workers new skills; and attract older adults who need more schooling to advance or change careers.
Sacred Heart’s expanded offerings include certificate programs in radiography and for CT, ultrasound, MRI and mammography technicians. The university has also reached a deal to train certified nursing assistants who already work for a local health care company to become in-demand and higher-paid patient-care technicians.
The economic churn triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic “has increased the demand” for courses that can help people quickly learn what they need to find work, Paliwal said.
It’s also speeded up a decline in the traditional supply of students, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, that is only projected to get worse. The number of undergraduates dropped by nearly 4 percent in the fall compared to the fall of 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, because of families’ financial circumstances, dissatisfaction with online learning and other reasons. Even if that rebounds, the number of potential future college freshmen graduating from high schools nationwide will begin decreasing after 2025, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education estimates.
Colleges competing for students “know there’s a bad brand out there for the liberal arts. The first thing people think is, ‘That doesn’t lead to a job.’ And that isn’t fair, but it’s the perception,” said Brandon Busteed, president of the University Partners division of the test-prep company Kaplan, which has begun to offer credential programs it calls “credegrees” that universities can embed in their academic progressions.
“We don’t want to lose the richness of the liberal arts. At the same time, we want to prepare you for life out there.”John Petillo, president, Sacred Heart University
Meanwhile, 10 million people are unemployed and could be ready to invest in workforce-focused programs. Many others plan to do that, too: More than half of all Americans under 40 say they’ll need to learn new skills to advance their careers, a survey by the SkillUp Coalition and the Charles Koch Foundation found — and 84 percent of those said they’ll do so in the next three years.
“We still have quite a few people who are out of work who are looking at opportunities to get back into the labor market,” said Karen Elzey, associate executive director of the advocacy organization Workcred, which pushes for improvements to the workforce credentialing system.
Increasingly judged on the success rates of their graduates, universities also see an opportunity to give their own students skills that are in real-world demand.
The idea is to “create really dynamic undergraduate graduates, who have a firm grasp in the liberal arts, but let’s also offer these hit-the-ground running, workforce-facing credentials,” said Brian Reed, associate vice provost for student success at the University of Montana.
That university announced in February that it would offer job training in cybersecurity, data marketing, data science and digital marketing to its bachelor’s degree-seeking students. The courses are being run in partnership with Kaplan and will also be available to alumni.
“We need to figure out how to capture every market we can,” Reed said.
Liberal arts-focused Dominican University of California has teamed up with the coding bootcamp Make School so its students can minor in coding and software design. Fifteen U.S. universities in all entered into partnerships with bootcamps between 2019 and the third quarter of last year to offer coding, the education research firm Holon IQ reports.
Only 26 percent of working U.S. adults who went to college strongly agree that the education they received is relevant to their work.
While students from all walks of life increasingly want to know that their educations will lead to good jobs, growing numbers of them are the first in their families to go to college, said Nicola Pitchford, Dominican’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “Those families have a particularly strong stake in being confident of immediate employability after graduation,” said Pitchford, who will take over as Dominican’s president in July.
Clarke University in Iowa, which has also traditionally concentrated on the liberal arts, last year added career courses in professional subjects including leadership, conflict management and data analysis.
Liberal arts-centric Stonehill College in Massachusetts has started offering certificates in specialty areas for teachers and last year added certificate training in advanced manufacturing and photonics, the technological uses of light in such things as optical communication.
Among the college’s goals were “to diversify its portfolio” and “open up new opportunities for some students that the college hasn’t had an opportunity to capitalize on,” said Melissa Ratliff, dean of graduate admission.
That’s “a smart move,” said Sally Johnstone, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit that consults with colleges. “These liberal arts colleges really need to think in terms of how they’re going to survive in a world where potential students are not interested in taking out excessive debt to get a degree.”
“There’s a bad brand out there for the liberal arts. The first thing people think is, ‘That doesn’t lead to a job.’ And that isn’t fair, but it’s the perception.”Brandon Busteed, president, Kaplan University Partners
Still, adding vocational training to a liberal arts degree “is not necessarily in the DNA of higher education,” said Petillo, the Sacred Heard president and a former business school dean, in a conference room at the university’s iHub — a sort of co-working innovation space for students and faculty. “You cross some turf issues.”
Universities and colleges have to remember that students “are the customer,” he said. “Some of my colleagues may think that’s heretical” to think of them this way.
Across the Fairfield, Connecticut, campus, Sacred Heart nursing students are working in a new lab learning radiography and other fields that will help them get better jobs when they graduate.
“We’re helping students ensure they’re much more marketable. They can work anywhere,” said Jay Hicks, chair of the radiography department.
The students will finish with certificates in specialty areas in addition to their associate or bachelor’s degrees.
“They’re getting dual credentials,” said Maryanne Davidson, dean of the division that oversees these programs. “That’s advancing their careers” before they even start.
Those already working said they are seeking technical certificates for the promotions and higher pay that come with them.
“It’s health care. And we’re in a pandemic,” Davidson said. “So there are a lot of jobs.”
Kelly Badgett came here after a career in child care to get a certification in sterile processing — preparing the instruments in medical settings.
She also considered going to a community college, Badgett said, but “I just thought Sacred Heart would look better on my resume.” She said most of her classmates were older than the typical college student. “We had more people over 30 than under 30,” said Badgett, who is 49. “They were all people who wanted to change careers.”
Some Sacred Heart bachelor’s degree-holders are now also coming back for the certificates, said Rosemarie Baker, chair of nursing. Before the university added these programs, she said, “they would have had to switch institutions” to learn those other skills. “They’d lose credits.”
Now, she said, “what we’ve created is, you never have to leave the institution. It’s the same credits. Everything transfers.”
Back at the brewery, the students in the Sacred Heart course are measuring and milling grain and putting it in kettles to mash. Some check equations on laptops.
This inaugural class is full, and more than twice as many people applied for the next class, Davidson, the dean, said.
“There are a lot of people in the industry now who frankly could benefit from more formal education, and there’s a lot of people who want to start their own breweries and get into the business,” said Phil Markowski, Two Roads’ co-founder and master brewer, who watched from the sidelines.
“There’s a lot of demand for this,” Markowski said. “It’s filling a need and a niche.”
This story about career and technical education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.