The Wall Street Journal Weighs in on the Value of a Certificate Program

In Search of Cachet
Online programs from top-notch schools gain, as students look to add luster to their résumés

Many people are finding there’s a way to get some of the benefits of an M.B.A. degree from a top-flight school but at a fraction of the usual cost. They’re heading online.

Instead of sitting in a classroom, they’re taking career-specific courses and certificate programs over the Web that enable them to put a prestigious name on their résumé without breaking the bank or upending their schedule.

Consider Benjamin Berry, a project-management consultant in Eugene, Ore. Late last year, the 45-year-old noticed that the market for his type of work was drying up but the price tag and time commitment deterred him from going back to school for an M.B.A. So, he enrolled in a $3,200 certificate program from eCornell, the online arm of Cornell University.

Mr. Berry, who received his undergraduate degree from Presbyterian College in Atlanta, says the program was an inexpensive way to gain Ivy League credibility. “A lot of people out here have never heard of Presbyterian College, but everyone knows Cornell University,” he says.

A Full Class

In addition to Cornell, such well-known schools as Boston University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California at Berkeley have introduced business-related certificates to their online offerings. A handful of other big schools, such as the University of Notre Dame, the University of San Francisco, Tulane and Villanova, are offering certificate programs through partnerships with University Alliance, a Tampa-based group that provides the marketing and technology for schools’ online efforts.

University Alliance has seen jumps in enrollment at all of its partner schools recently, according to Amit Sharan, the group’s assistant brand manager for business-certificate programs. The people choosing these programs “need relevant skills that they can attain, and apply, immediately,” Mr. Sharan says.

What’s more, large companies are partnering with prestigious schools to develop online programs to train and retain employees. At eCornell, 60% of students take classes through corporate partnerships, says eCornell’s president and CEO, Chris Proulx. “Our students are professionals looking to advance their career in an accelerated way,” he says.

One of the school’s most popular certificates is in hotel revenue management. Cornell University’s hotel-management program is widely regarded as top tier, and the certificate gives nondegree students the opportunity to engage with professors from the full-time program. The 23 eCornell certificate programs cost $2,000 to $6,000 about the same as students would pay for similar in-person programs.

For Mark Delisi, director of corporate responsibility at Computer Sciences Corp. and former head of the company’s Leadership Academy, a partnership with eCornell over the past six years has been a success. Initially, he says, the company was looking for an Ivy League executive-education program for senior executives in the company who are spread out around the globe. Later, Computer Sciences expanded it to include managers.

“Content-wise, access-wise, [the online program] is as good if not better than the in-person experience,” Mr. Delisi says. Inside the company, he adds, the program is seen as “clearly adding value; it’s helping our executives and senior-level people do their jobs better.”

At Your Convenience

For workers, the programs offer a number of advantages. Chad Pollitt, who works for, a Web-design and marketing firm in Goshen, Ind., says an online certificate was the only way to advance his marketing career, because there weren’t any schools nearby offering a program. He could “study any time of day and anywhere in the world,” he says.

The Internet marketing certificate, through the University of San Francisco and University Alliance, cost $6,000 and took about 100 hours and 12 weeks to complete. Students could choose to participate in real-time class sessions or review the lectures later on their computers.

“My boss was skeptical at first because our industry is constantly changing,” says Mr. Pollitt. “Once I started bringing the ‘latest and greatest’ strategies and methodologies from the program to work, he became a believer.”

Mr. Pollitt credits the program with helping him double his sales, and he adds that early on in his course work, co-workers began coming to him with their Internet marketing questions. “It’s made me, our team and our company more successful,” he says.

Another upside of programs from well-known universities is the perception that they are more rigorous and high level than some other online offerings something critics often argued was lacking from upstart online programs. “These are not ‘book in a box’ programs,” says University Alliance’s Mr. Sharan. “They are taught by the university’s faculty, and in order to receive a certificate of completion, the student must complete a mastery exam.”

Of course, not every online program is worthwhile, and online certificates aren’t for everyone, says John Fernandes, president and CEO of AACSB International, the main accrediting body for business schools. Students should have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve, he says. “You need to do your homework. Ask yourself, ‘What is this course yielding for the starting point of future employment?’ “

Executive recruiter Nancy Keene agrees. “No matter what school, it is important to know the brand of the school, what it might add to your [qualifications] package and how it will be received by your target hiring managers,” says Ms. Keene, a director in Stanton Chase International’s Dallas office.

She suggests contacting hiring managers and graduates of the program to find out how valuable the certificates have proved in the workplace before signing up. If the program checks out, Ms. Keene adds, a targeted certificate can be especially valuable when recruiters ask what you’ve been doing while laid off.

In the early summer of 2009 eCornell was approached by the Wall Street Journal requesting interviews from our students on the value of a Certificate vs. a Degree: