Spokane Journal of Business

To a greater degree: INW colleges expand certificate programs as gateway for new students

Trend occurs in era of declining enrollment

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-Virginia Thomas
Sinead Voorhees, assistant dean of graduate studies at Whitworth University, says certificate programs are growing in popularity for students and universities alike.

Certificates are becoming a more popular offering at higher education institutions amid an environment of declining enrollment, representatives of Spokane’s colleges and universities say. 

While students increasingly are seeking low-cost, low-time commitment options to increase their professional skills, schools are looking to increase revenue lost to decreasing enrollments, as well as to entice those who obtain certificates into pursuing additional certificates and degrees. 

Gonzaga University is growing its certificate programs, says Rachelle Strawther, director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at Gonzaga University. Strawther says the private Jesuit school plans to double its certificate offerings to 10 within the next year.

Strawther says that certificates are likely to become a more integral part of the academic landscape, especially as demand for employees remains high in some industries.

“We’re definitely go-
ing to see a lot more certificates offered across the nation in tech and health care,” Strawther says. 

Strawther says Gonzaga has been working since September 2021, when she became director, to establish the Center for Lifelong Learning, which is formally launching operations this fall. Strawther says the center provides a foundation for the university’s continuing education and professional and personal development offerings. The center is home to Gonzaga’s certificate programs, and will also offer workshops, webinars, retreats, and academic camps. 

“Our mission is to create pathways for people from all backgrounds and educational levels to learn and grow at Gonzaga University,” Strawther says. 

The university currently offers certificates in design thinking, women’s leadership, servant leadership, foundational leadership, and health care leadership. Strawther says Gonzaga intends to offer certificates in the areas of engineering, business, education, and climate studies. 

Whitworth University also is increasing its certificate offerings, says Sinead Voorhees, assistant dean of
graduate studies in business at Whitworth. The private Christian school north of Spokane is adding a brewing science and operations certificate, as well as a leadership certificate for women. 

The university has offered certificates in accounting and organizational management for many years, Whitworth dean of continuing studies Brooke Kiener says. Last year, Whitworth added a certificate in software development. 

Certificates are growing in popularity partly because they have a low barrier to entry, Voorhees contends. 

“You’re not applying for it, you’re registering, so it’s like a conference -- anyone can go to a conference if they register for it,” she says. 

Many certificates don’t require prior degrees, nor do they require passing a test such as the Graduate Record Examinations or the Graduate Management Admission Test, Voorhees adds. 

Kevin Brockbank, president of Spokane Community College, says that the comparative low cost of obtaining a certificate as opposed to a degree is a draw for many people. For example, at SCC, a pharmacy technician certificate costs about $6,400, while a pharmacy technician associate degree costs about $9,400. 

The shorter time to completion – weeks to months, depending on the certificate, versus two years for an associate’s degree – also is important to some students, Brockbank says. 

In an effort to address prospective students’ desire for education delivered in a short period of time, Brockbank says SCC is introducing an accelerated transfer degree in January. A transfer degree is a degree program which
a student begins at a community college be-
fore transferring to a four-year university. Rather than two years, the degree will take 12 consecutive months to earn, Brockbank says. 

Jonathan Anderson, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Eastern Washington University, says interest in certificates has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. This fall, EWU is partnering with Spokane-based No-Li Brewhouse to offer the No WU Craft Beer Professional Certificate. 

“There’s quite a market for craft brews in the larger Spokane area,” Anderson says. “There was interest from individuals wanting to … grow or obtain skills.”

The inaugural class of 25 spots filled quickly, Anderson says. 

“We ended up with individuals from 18 different majors and four individuals who came back to do this certificate as a post-baccalaureate student,” he says.

The expansion of certificate programs is occurring in an era in which enrollment at universities throughout the Inland Northwest and the U.S. has been on a downward trend, which was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Jim Brady, vice president of instruction at Spokane Falls Community College, says enrollment at the college has dropped by nearly 20% from 2020 to 2022. 

As previously reported by the Journal, Whitworth University saw undergraduate enrollment decline by about 3.7% from fall 2020 to fall 2021. 

As reported by the EWU student newspaper The Easterner, total student enrollment at EWU decreased by 11.8% from fall 2020 to fall 2021.

Gonzaga’s undergraduate enrollment has dropped by about 8% from spring 2019 to spring 2021, according to figures reported in the Journal’s annual list of local colleges and universities. 

According to a National Student Clearinghouse report released in January, colleges and universities in the U.S. have seen undergraduate enrollment decline by 6.6% since fall 2019.

While more certificate programs are being offered in a declining enrollment environment, they don’t necessarily attract the traditional students that universities covet. Whitworth’s Kiener says many students in certificate programs are established in their careers and are looking to advance by increasing their skillset. 

“People in these certificate programs have degrees, for the most part,” Kiener says. “They’re not looking for degree completion. They’re not looking to add another degree. They’re looking to add a skillset or a competency.”

Voorhees says that certificates are a favorable option for those well into their careers because additional certificates can be earned at the student’s pace, and a student can earn as many certificates as they wish. 

“I would never recommend people get three MBAs – you just need one,” Voorhees says. “But the beauty of certificates is … they’re stackable, so your learning journey never has to end.”

Strawther says some seek the prestige of a particular university name on a certificate. Gonzaga, she asserts, is an example of this. 

“With a name like Gonzaga, if people have not gone to Gonzaga, they immediately think of basketball,” Strawther says. 

Many people who are midcareer and learn of Gonzaga’s certificate offerings decide to pursue a certificate from the university partly to obtain a closer association with the university, she claims. 

“After that, you’re a Zag, you have this association with the university,” Strawther says. 

Voorhees says that certificates are an attractive option for higher education institutions because certificates are a low-pressure way to introduce people to a college or university, or to academia in general. 

“It’s a very smart way to get people comfortable with the idea of furthering their education,” Voorhees says. “While we don’t do it just to increase enrollment, are people more likely to matriculate into a university that they’ve had former positive experiences with? Absolutely.”

Certificates don’t make up much of Whitworth’s total enrollment, Voorhees notes. 

“But I believe that one extra drop in the ocean is still an extra drop,” she says. 

The effort put into creating a certificate program can be proportionally small. Kiener says certificate programs can be uncomplicated to create, depending on the program. 

“Our organizational management certificate is curriculum that already existed, packaged in a new way,” Kiener says. “That one was not particularly difficult to put on the books.”

Brockbank says in addition to demand from prospective students, the perspectives of employers involved in SCC’s advisory groups carry weight when the college is deciding what certificates to offer. 

“We continue to add and delete certificates as needed,” Brockbank says. “We do that primarily based on workforce need.”

Virginia Thomas
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Reporter Virginia Thomas has worked at the Journal since 2017 and covers the health care industry. As a reporter, she loves learning about Spokane's many growing industries. She enjoys travelling with her husband, snuggling with her cats, and cross stitching.

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