The power of 2-year degrees and certifications in skills-based hiring

This post has been republished via RSS; it originally appeared at: New blog articles in Microsoft Community Hub.

Not long ago, a four-year degree was the most common route to a career that demanded higher skills and offered higher pay. Today, that’s changing. According to a recent study from Harvard Business Review and The Burning Glass Institute, a growing number of companies are dropping the requirement for a bachelor’s degree and instead focusing on skills-based hiring to widen the talent pool.

This shift has not gone unnoticed by students. According to The Overlooked Value of Certificates and Associate’s Degrees: What Students Need to Know Before They Go to College, a report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, the combined number of certificates and associate’s degrees awarded by colleges is now similar to the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded - around 2 million per year in the US.

As more students opt for a two-year degree combined with skills-based training and industry-recognized certifications rather than a four-year degree, community colleges are turning to the tools and resources of Microsoft Learn for Educators (MSLE), Microsoft’s educational teaching and learning program to augment students’ existing degree paths with industry-recognized certifications and better prepare them for success in an evolving labor market. 

Connecting two-year colleges and Microsoft Learn

Broward College in Broward County, Florida, has the second-largest enrollment within the Florida College System with 56,000 students. Brian Faris, interim associate dean of Information Technology, says Broward opted to offer Microsoft content because the college needed help finding curriculum for courses aligned to Microsoft certifications. “When we heard about the content available through Microsoft Learn for Educators, we were very excited to try it out,” says Faris. 

Broward College uses Microsoft content in three of its programs: Network Systems Technology, which prepares students for the Azure Fundamentals and Windows Server Hybrid Administrator Associate certifications; Computer Information Technology, which prepares students for the Azure Fundamentals and Enterprise Administrator Expert certifications; and Broward UP, a program that offers free workforce training and student support services online and in neighborhoods throughout Broward County and prepares students for the Azure Fundamentals certifications.

Faris says Broward College intends to use additional Microsoft content as it expands its course offerings. “IT is a constantly evolving industry, and if you want to stay relevant, the Microsoft curriculum and certifications are the way to go,” he says. “You cannot go wrong becoming Microsoft certified.” Broward also leverages Microsoft technology to help support broader campus initiatives, such as improving student attrition and learning modality.


Not only does Broward College teach Azure Fundamentals, but the college has also leveraged Azure Machine Learning and responsible AI to increase student retention rate allowing the school to identify students that may need help earlier than they ever have been able to before. Learn more about what Broward College is doing to help students reach their goals.


Meanwhile, Dallas College, one of the largest community colleges in Texas, uses Microsoft content in its cloud computing program which currently consists of two associate degrees: one in cloud computing and the other in cloud system operations. In fall 2023, the college will add an 18-credit-hour cloud computing certificate and a nine-credit-hour cloud computing occupational skills award. Both will utilize Microsoft curriculum and prepare students for Microsoft Azure certifications.

Joselle Williams, professor of Computer Information Technology at Dallas College, began using Microsoft Learn content in August 2021 and MSLE in January 2022.  “The Microsoft Learn content has been very beneficial,” says Williams. “The material is comprehensive and easy to understand, and the labs give students hands-on experience to bring theory into practice. The content is also constantly updated, so our students always have the most up-to-date curriculum.”

Williams says she encourages students to think less about employment with a traditional technology company and more about the industry they are interested in. To that end, she recently asked her students to research careers in technology, and several came back with data about IT careers in healthcare, finance, and other industries. “There are many different areas to apply these skills,” says Williams. “If a student is interested in a particular industry, I encourage them to find out what technical skills will benefit that industry.”

Microsoft Certifications remain the industry gold standard

Forsyth Technical Community College is a two-year college that enrolls about 8,000 students in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Forsyth offers nine IT-based programs and plans to add at least four Microsoft Azure SQL courses. Each of the courses are focused on an industry certification.

Nancy Miller, associate professor, began teaching at Forsyth Tech and using Microsoft content more than 20 years ago. Forsyth Tech was also one of the first schools to join the MSLE program when it became available in 2021. “There’s no way I would teach without this content,” she says.

Miller says 90 percent of the industry jobs in her area require a Microsoft skill set. “There’s no question students need these skills,” she says. “When you look at the job skills in and around our area, Microsoft leads the pack. For students, understanding Microsoft terminology and technology opens doors.”


Miller recently finished teaching a course within Forsyth’s Data Analytics curriculum that was taught to prepare students for Microsoft’s Azure Fundamentals AZ-900 exam. Nine out of 10 students passed the certification exam on their first try.


Approximately 98 percent of the students in Miller’s capstone class are offered a job prior to graduation. “Employers used to want four-year degrees, and they couldn’t care less about certifications. Now they are calling us begging for the students we’re turning out,” she says. “In today’s hybrid world, students with a two-year degree and certifications will get the job.”

Miller says the companies hiring Forsyth grads run the gamut in terms of the type of industry. Some of the biggest employers hiring technically skilled employees include healthcare organizations, banks, and an older telecom company modernizing with the cloud. “Every company has a technology need,” says Miller. “I tell my students, don’t ever close the door because you don’t know what kind of opportunity you’re walking away from.”

Microsoft at the heart of an innovative education model

In Australia, the focus on skills-based learning has led to an entirely new education model. The Institute of Applied Technology – Digital (IAT-D), based in New South Wales, Australia, launched in February 2023 and is already recognized as a world leader in its goal to provide alternative pathways to those seeking a career in tech or staying on top of skills required by the industry. Two and a half years in the making, the IAT-D is the result of a deep collaboration between TAFE NSW, a leading provider of vocational education and training in Australia; the University of Technology Sydney; Macquarie University; and Microsoft to bring together the best of vocational education, higher education, and industry.

“We have a skilling deficit in New South Wales and Australia, and our current traditional education models aren’t meeting what industry needs to fill those skill gaps,” says Matthew Bushby, Director of Commercial and University Partnerships for TAFE NSW. “To date, nobody’s been able to bring those three sectors together to co-design and co-deliver educational programs on the scale we are doing now. This is a genuine three-way partnership to deliver cutting-edge skills that meet industry needs.”

Programs such as MSLE are used in the development of the course content and delivery of practical experiences. “Embedding Microsoft certifications was an important part of the co-design because we see those as the industry gold standard for learners entering the workforce,” says Bushby. “Microsoft programs are a critical base-level knowledge for many jobs.”

IAT-D delivers both microskills—self-paced training lasting only a few hours on a specific skill or topic—and microcredentials—small, discrete pieces of training resulting in a certification in a format shorter than a usual university course.  IAT-D aims to attract around 26,000 learners over the next four years; in its first five months, the IAT-D has already enrolled 13,000 in its microskills courses and over 800 students in its microcredentials program.

“This robust education model balancing theory and practice provides access to quick skilling and allows industry to cultivate learners with specific skill sets to fill job vacancies. It also allows learners to re-skill without committing to a four-year program,” says Bushby. “It’s a safe, accessible place for learners to pick the skills they want to learn, take control, and choose their own journey. It still requires a strong commitment for learners to succeed, but we’re already finding completion rates in these programs are far higher than completion rates of a higher education degree or a VET certificate.”


Another unique benefit of studying at the IAT-D is that learners can take their earned credits and have them recognized by the education partner institutions if the desired outcome is to pursue a 4-year degree.


An easy way to adopt industry-leading curricula

As employers increasingly look to hire people with the right skills rather than strictly those with a bachelor’s degree, Microsoft learning resources enable two-year colleges to offer up-to-date curricula quickly and easily.

“The Microsoft Learn for Educators program is definitely worth it,” says Williams of Dallas College. “There are so many courses available. If you’re trying to find curriculum, you won’t have a problem finding it and getting students certified. It’s a win for the institution and a big win for students.”



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