AuthorKim, Anne


Earlier this year, I enrolled in a Google-sponsored online course to earn a "professional certificate" in data analytics. The course was one of a series of new, video-based classes that the company has suggested might someday replace traditional college.

"College degrees are out of reach for many Americans, and you shouldn't need a college diploma to have economic security," wrote Google's president of global affairs, Kent Walker, in a 2020 blog post announcing the new curriculum. Walker later added, on Twitter, that in its own hiring, Google "will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles."

Under the umbrella "Grow with Google," the company offers three online professional certificate courses in project management and user experience (UX) design, as well as data analytics, IT, and other specialties. All are available through the online learning platform Coursera, and cost $39 or $49 a month. On its website for prospective students, Google describes its courses as an educational shortcut to a lucrative gig and lists the average median salaries that certificate earners might receive: entry-level data analytics jobs pay $92,000; entry-level project managers, $77,000.

Unfortunately, my experience earning--and then attempting to peddle--a Google-sponsored certificate was less triumphant. My certificate took me just two and a half weeks to get, mainly because I learned to game the system. (I watched videos at double speed and passed quizzes by trial and error.) And when I presented my shiny new credential to prospective employers in the Washington, D.C., area and scoured job postings in Silicon Valley, my credential was less a foot in the door than a plaintive knock at firmly barred gates. Almost every "entry-level" data analytics job I found required either extensive experience or, alas, a supposedly outmoded college degree. The real lesson of my ersatz professional certificate was to illuminate the pitfalls of the burgeoning certificates industry--a rapidly expanding marketplace defined primarily by a lack of data, regulation, and oversight.

That's not to discredit the idea behind short-term credentials like certificates. In theory, they're great. In our rapidly changing labor market, workers need fast and affordable options to acquire additional skills and retrain without going back to college. But in reality, too many of the short-term programs available today, Google's included, might not meet that need--largely because neither students nor employers have any way of distinguishing credible programs from scammy dreck. The value of a certificate, even when backed by a behemoth like Google, remains iffy, if not downright suspect.

That lack of accountability is bad for everyone. It's bad for companies in need of skilled workers, and it's bad for students hoping to keep pace with technological advancements. If professional certificates are to become a meaningful currency in the educational marketplace and act as a pathway to economic security--which they should--there's much more work to be done.

Professional certificates have exploded in popularity in recent years. The nonprofit Credential Engine now counts at least 112,000 certificate programs nationwide, offered by trade schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and companies like Microsoft, IBM, Facebook parent Meta, and, of course, Google. Students hoping to switch careers or boost their earning potential have been driving the trend. Coursera, for instance, reported 8.3 million enrollees worldwide in 79 different professional certificate programs as of March--an increase of 157 percent over the past year. According to a 2023 survey by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, roughly 40 percent of adults who are considering returning to school now say they would pursue a certificate, versus just 27 percent...

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