TOPICS > Education

High-Tech Universities

August 15, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

JOHN MERROW: Picture college and you probably imagine brick buildings, young students milling around campus, football games, graduation with caps and gowns. These are familiar images, but they’re only one slice of reality. This is another slice of educational reality for two million students in the last ten years. Today, less than a quarter of college students live in dorms and finish in four years. 60% attend more than one institution over the course of their education. College has changed; perhaps nothing illustrates the change better than the world of information technology certification. IT certification was created by business for business. It started because employers did not have enough skilled workers to fill the rising number of high-tech networking and programming jobs. They needed to train workers and they needed a way to assess the skills of those applying for jobs, according to Clifford Adelman, who studies IT for the U.S. Department of Education.

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: Somebody was smart enough to say that there had to be a way of independently validating and encouraging people; in fact, encouraging people to learn the material that would enable them to operate our products, our software, our systems, whatever it happened to be. It went beyond traditional product information and sales training. This was high-tech stuff.

MATT McDONALD: Having somebody come out with an engineering degree, or a computer science degree, is just not enough.

JOHN MERROW: Matt McDonald hires for TRW, a high tech company in the Washington, DC, area.

MATT McDONALD: It’s a continuous, evolving role. I mean, you have to keep on top of the certifications.

SPOKESMAN: We’re going to go out to the Internet and review page four, then…

JOHN MERROW: People do that at places like this Washington, DC, classroom.

MIKE HA KAHAN: It’s quicker. It seems easier to retain. It’s more focused on the specific task at hand, where if you take college classes, they just throw everything at you all at once, and, you know, that’s quite different.

JOHN MERROW: How is this different from college, if it is?

GEORGE CLARE: I see, basically, what I need this information for, as opposed to just reading texts in each course. I get hands-on knowledge this way, and I think it can be productive down the line for me, and I didn’t really have that concept when I was going to college.

JOHN MERROW: If you’re successful, will you make more money?


JOHN MERROW: Guaranteed?

JIM DEBERRY: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: Those who have completed I.T. Courses seem happy with the results. Toby Kienle, who works for a high-tech company in the DC area, spent about $3,700 on his IT certification.

JOHN MERROW: Was it worth it?

TOBY KIENLE: Oh, absolutely. You know, the salary jump, it was the first year above and beyond that, and within two years, several times over.

JOHN MERROW: Since this trend took off in the 1990s, almost two million people around the world have gotten certified. Moe Kaviani started a training company called ICI Systems in 1991.

MOE KAVIANI: I started this company mainly because I went through a typical academic program at the University of Maryland, and I have a couple of engineering degrees. And it took me a very, very long time to get to the point where I could actually produce something for my employer. So I found this education extremely attractive to students who want to be productive fairly quickly.

JOHN MERROW: College courses are designed by individual professors, but companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Novell create IT certification courses. They spell out exactly what people need to know to use their products effectively.

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: In this case, it’s not the school, it’s the examination or the vendor or the industry association that issues the certification. And the examination specifications are very detailed and I know what’s behind the exam you passed. I don’t necessarily know what is behind the bachelor’s degree you passed.

JOHN MERROW: Another difference, according to Adelman, there are many routes to learning. Students do not necessarily have to go to classes.

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: You can study for it in a variety of ways that you choose to study. Since you are an autodidact, you are going to buy some books and CD-roms, but since you need some other help, you are going to go to one of my training partners. I have set up some relationships with commercial organizations or with community colleges, and you go to one of those.

JOHN MERROW: So there are lots of ways I can do this?

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: Absolutely. Go to your local bookstore on a Saturday morning, sit down in the computer section and watch the people, not the books. They’ll sit on the floor studying for those exams.

JOHN MERROW: Students can also go online and either take courses or get help from others who have already taken the exams. IT can be inexpensive, at least compared to college. Four years at a public college or university costs about $40,000. At a private college: $120,000. By comparison, IT certification is a bargain.

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: It depends on how you do it. If you prepare for the exam by simply buying books and cd-roms and studying yourself and logging on to some of the Web sites where you can exchange information with other people, you’re not spending all that much.

JOHN MERROW: A few hundred bucks?

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: A few hundred dollars plus the examination fees, and it depends on the exam.

JOHN MERROW: Most IT students, however, take short courses, and some of these can cost as much as $7,000. Many employers are not even particularly interested in whether people have college degrees. Clifford Adelman looked carefully at ads in the “Washington Post,” and found that only one out of five even mentioned college.

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: The corporations ask for demonstrable knowledge and skills. I can’t simply tell you, I’ve got to show you.

JOHN MERROW: And despite the recent economic slump, the demand for skilled workers in information technology remains high. For example, the starting salary for a Microsoft certified systems engineer is $60,000. Most traditional four-year colleges and universities do not offer IT courses; community colleges do. George Boggs is president of the American Association of Community Colleges.

GEORGE BOGGS: Community colleges are very responsive, probably the most responsive segment of higher education. So, many of the colleges are partnering with Microsoft and Novell and these other technology companies to offer the industry skill standards.

JOHN MERROW: Montgomery community college in Maryland began offering IT courses in 1998. Faculty teach the courses, but companies like Microsoft provide the certification exams. Charlene Nunley is president of the college.

CHARLENE NUNLEY: If you pass that test, then you will be a certified Microsoft system engineer and you can go to work in companies that are looking for that kind of employment. In the case of our programs, the students tend to begin working with employers before they are even out of the program. And because the demand is so high, they are snatched up immediately when they are finished– some of them even before they have finished– to begin working.

JOHN MERROW: But will the broad, humanizing experience of a traditional liberal arts education be denied those who follow the narrower path to IT certification?

GEORGE BOGGS: Although this computer work can be intriguing, I don’t think in the long run it’s going to be satisfying for an individual. I think a person is going to want to grown and learn new things.

JOHN MERROW: What if you are wrong?

SPOKESMAN: Well, if I am wrong, we are headed toward a very divided society.

JOHN MERROW: In the emerging society, more and more people will need continuing education just to keep abreast of change.

CHARLENE NUNLEY: Perhaps we should put a time limit on your Ph.D. Degree, ( laughs ) so it will only last for five years, and then you have to go back and show that you have continued your education and grown and developed. But there is something to be said for that, because all of us are going to have to keep up with the way the world is changing.

JOHN MERROW: A new world of continuing education will require a new way of certifying what we know, according to Clifford Adelman.

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: My metaphor for it is, “what’s in your valise?” What are you carrying into the labor market?

JOHN MERROW: Your educational valise?

CLIFFORD ADELMAN: Your educational valise. I mean, you know, the knowledge and skills that you are building on all the time. This is in addition to what you’ve got.

JOHN MERROW: It’s a good metaphor: An educational valise Most of us will need to be reeducated throughout our * lifetimes. We’ll find and take courses in lots of places: Community colleges, technical institutes, museums, the “Y,” the Internet. The landscape of higher education has changed and it will keep on changing. We’re not passive learners anymore; we’re customers– Shoppers.