The Big Debate: Online Certifications or Graduate Programmes in a Post-Pandemic World?

Future of learning

It’s the big debate in the education world – how will online education impact traditional education? Also, what are the advantages of one over the other.

What’s important to note is that it’s not really about one over the other, but about what works best for a student. Nothing can beat a campus experience, but then not everyone can afford a traditional university education. So, it’s really about filling the gaps and about accessibility. And this is where online programmes have an edge, and are thus being called game changers. There is, of course, also the hybrid model – a mix of both offline and online, which is being seen as a best-of-both-worlds option.

The debate, however, is not new.. Even before the pandemic, the idea that a traditional college education was necessary for the achievement of a fulfilling career was being tested.

As we end 2020, while still living in the pandemic, this debate around online certificate programmes versus graduate degrees has deepened yet again. Should one go for  a graduate programme from a prestigious university, or  accumulate as much knowledge as possible through online certificates, workshops, Zoom gatherings, YouTube lessons, or certificate courses offered by Coursera, Udemy, and many others?

This article attempts to address some questions around the debate.

First, Google

A few months ago, Google stepped up to disrupt the higher education demand in at least four specific fields. The giant tech company declared that if one is interested in becoming a project manager, a UX designer, a data analyst, or an IT support professional, then one might not need a college degree. The company added three new jobs to its Google Career Certificates at a fraction of the cost and time of an undergraduate degree.

According to the company, such online courses have been specifically designed to give students everything they need to get hired in their chosen fields over a course of six months. These courses have been placed at a nominal price of $49 per month, or around $300 total. Additionally, Google will hand out 100,000 scholarships for those who don’t have enough funding to join the program.

Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, Kent Walker, tweeted that a certificate course would even replace a traditional degree when it comes to Google’s own hiring managers. The tech giant has managed to get 50 other companies to adopt the same policy, including big ones such as Intel, Hulu, Walmart, PNC, H&R Block, and Bank of America.

While this was welcomed by many, it also sparked a debate on the continuing relevance of a traditional degree. If giant dream companies such as Google have openly shown their preference towards online certificate programs, then where does this leave thousands of students who pursue traditional degrees to get their dream jobs in such companies?

Google, of course, isn’t the first company to question the  the four-year degree requirement. Apple, IBM, Penguin Random House, and Hilton are few of many that don’t require applicants to be college graduates. There are two divergent views on this – some  believe that while Google’s certificates won’t put universities out of business just yet, they will be the latest disruptors in the higher education industry. Others believe  that while such certificates might look good on the resume, there is no guarantee that they will provide the edge in getting better opportunities. Question then to ask is – are certificate courses enough?

It’s the  ‘new normal’

Google’s courses came at a very critical time when the pandemic forced people to drop out of higher education and also caused millions of job losses. . As a response, work from home, online classes, and up-skilling took over the employment and education scenario.

According to reports, it is estimated that nearly 400 million jobs were lost worldwide due to the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020. In fact, many countries throughout the world are continuing their fight against the unprecedented unemployment rates ever. This has led to a huge number of students dropping out from their universities in order to save themselves from the exorbitant fee.

A post-pandemic pattern is thus emerging – : an increasing number of  adult learners are in need of concrete skills, while more and more college students are considering short-term and cost-effective alternatives. Therefore, online courses have emerged as an attractive and a low-risk alternative. Studies have shown that consumer interest in these modes of education has increased significantly post COVID-19. According to Moody’s Investor Services, enrollment in non-degree online courses has seen a very rapid spike in recent months.

Coursera, a pioneer in the online short-course domain, developed the Workforce Recovery segment specifically as part of their overall course portfolio. Other websites like Udemy, Harvard and MIT’s edX, Skillshare, Udacity, etc. have also made many courses free of cost due to an increased number of people enrolling. Reputed  universities such as Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins are also offering free certification courses to further people’s skill development.

In fact, tech corporations such as Google and Amazon, are creating content for these programs, and it is they who determine the required competencies for students to master. It is clearly evident that the aim of these corporations is to create standardized skill sets that can apply beyond their payrolls, for job seekers across entire occupational fields placed anywhere in the world.

But there’s no replacing the graduate programs

Large organizations like  Google and Microsoft  are said to receive nearly 2 million applications per year – while  those like Goldman Sachs attract people in the thousands.

These organizations,  among a growing list of other industry leaders,  highlight the importance of soft skills — such as emotional intelligence, resilience, and learnability, as major determinants of performance. These skills cannot be learnt in an online environment, but are usually imbibed as a result of campus-living in graduate programme. Also, the most in-demand jobs continue to require significant graduate credentials.

Despite online learning making inroads in education, the truth is that  the number of students  enrolling in universities has continued to rise. In the U.S., one-third of adults are college graduates. This figure that was just 4.6% in the 1940s. Globally, it has been reported by UNESCO that the number of students earning a university degree has more than doubled in the last 20 years.

Looking at these numbers, it is easy to understand why more workforce is considering going to graduate school. In the U.S., the number of graduate students has tripled since the 1970s, and reportedly, 27% of the employers now seek a master’s degree for roles in which historically undergraduate degrees were fairly sufficient.


Career expert and resume writer Wendi Weiner has mentioned, several times, in interviews that certificates like the ones at Google can be  beneficial additions  for those who already have their bachelor’s degrees. This means that if getting a master’s is too expensive or takes too long, a certificate could be an easy and available substitute. “These certificate programs show a commitment to additional training, increasing knowledge, and refining skills,” Weiner said in an interview. Additionally, Weiner believes that the bottom line for any hiring manager is meeting the needs of the job listing. A Google certificate “could potentially be something that hiring managers are willing to consider — keep in mind, however, that job postings will often state 10-plus years of experience or an advanced degree.”

Similarly, Dandan Zhu, headhunter and CEO of Dandan Global, a career coaching business, says that while a Google certificate can look great on a resume, it doesn’t automatically guarantee a job offer. “Don’t rely on your credentials to carry you,” Zhu said in an interview. “Everybody can have those same credentials, so don’t ever think about it as a selling point. It’s not. It’s a point that you can leverage, but it’s not a selling point.” “It isn’t equivalent to four years in college, but it means that this person has really sharp, immediately applicable skills,” Zhu added.

What do the experts say?

One of the main criticisms of higher education through the years has been that universities find it difficult to equip students with the real-world skills they need in the workplace, and also  leaves them in debt for years, as they struggle to pay back student loans. In contrast to that the tech giant, Google, claims that their courses would cost a fraction of a traditional university education and would aim at preparing students to immediately step in high-paying and high-growth career fields and environments.

Even though the opinions about online education remain divided due to various fears ranging from the lack of student-teacher interaction to the technological facilities needed to access it, more and more people have begun appreciating the benefits. Keeping the most obvious ones such as flexibility, comfort, and cost-effectiveness aside, reports have found sociological advantages to this somewhat unconventional mode of learning. Much research has started showing that many minority groups such as women and black people prefer an online education. A research study found that this particular preference has led to a higher underrepresented group enrolment in various professional courses, those like Coursera’s iMBA program. According to the prediction of many experts, the credibility of online certification is expected to grow. According to a survey conducted by Edukatico, organizations  were found to view online certification as advantageous and reflective of a committed worker.

However, a lot of contrary data also exists suggesting that moving towards online courses can have its own set of barriers.  Talking about universities, this move is expected to cost the higher education sector £1bn. Another barrier could be cultural change. When Times Higher Education surveyed 200 university leaders in 2018, they agreed that online learning could never replace the physical university experience.

Online learning, while it has immense benefits, is not a silver bullet to the problems , thus  posed by the pandemic. Allison Littlejohn, director of the UCL Institute of Education’s knowledge lab, cautions  that quality online courses take time and effort to create. “It’s crucial the online learning experience is well-designed and we don’t simply shift existing content from one format to another,” she said in an interview.

Equally, for many students, the value of a university goes deeper than just coursework and qualifications and examinations. Research by Universities UK found that almost 60% of students and recent graduates strongly felt that the social element of the campus experience had helped them significantly in broadening their life experience. It helped them become more independent and confident, and develop important soft skills such as teamwork and time management. Not to forget the forming of lifelong friendships borne out of a campus-bonding experience.

Kendrick Oliver, a professor at the University of Southampton, agrees. Oliver believes that nothing can replace the classroom experience – being physically together in a space means rich communication, and more energy and experimentation from everyone involved. But he acknowledges that habit and routine are powerful. Therefore, months of online working might make digital more of a default. The trick with online courses, then, is to look for accredited, university-affiliated courses that are relevant to the field you plan to or already specialize in.

It’s not one versus the other

As one delves deeper into the idea of a graduate degree versus an online certificate programme, it seems clear that there can’t be a ‘versus’ in there. Experts are still of the opinion that certificate programmes can’t fully undo graduate programs. The learning one gets by going to a college will always remain unique and it will definitely help in adding skills to a student’s profile and their personality that is responsible for getting them enriched life experience and jobs.

But there are several benefits to online learning: it can widen access to education to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go. This is already happening in the US, where online education is more established, especially among lower-income students. It was reported that a few months back, Southern New Hampshire University, one of the fastest-growing universities in the country, announced that it has used online learning to enable it to slash its tuition fees by 61%.

While a graduate programme will shape an overall life experience of a student, an online certificate looks like the best alternative given lack of resources and time. Through the study one thing stands out very clear: each isn’t a substitute for the other. Each can be leveraged for their benefits and strengths.

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