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In an uncertain economy, students turn to certificate programs

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By ALTHEA A. FUNG

Chris Robinson was at a crossroads in his life. A customer service associate at Home Depot, Robinson dreamed of being a lawyer but lacked the focus to stay in school long enough to finish an undergraduate degree.

In the fall of 2006, he enrolled at SUNY IT in Utica, the State University’s only institute for technology,  but dropped out by the end of the spring semester because he “majored in drinking.”

He returned home to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and enrolled at Interboro Institute, a for-profit college in New York City. But he dropped out again because he “didn’t feel like going to school.”

With no financial burden from school – financial aid covered Robinson’s tuition at Interboro and his mother took out loans for him to attend SUNY IT that she is repaying without his assistance – he felt like he had no reason to stay in school.

By the spring of 2009, Robinson, 22, realized he needed to return to college. One afternoon, while hanging out in Downtown Brooklyn, he noticed a group of people leaving 111 Livingston St., a SUNY-owned building. Curious, he went in and found the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center (BEOC).

The Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center has offered free certificate programs since 1966.

The BEOC is an educational and vocational training service that has been offering free job training to New York City residents since 1966. Students get certificates in subjects such as bookkeeping or medical billing and coding after attending short courses. They can then look for work even though they don’t have a college degree. Programs like BEOC have become particularly popular during the recessions as more and more people look for ways to become qualified for higher paying jobs.

Robinson enrolled in the hospitality management certificate program. It wasn’t the field he wanted – he was more interested in the web design course – but it was the one being offered at the time. For three months, Robinson and 20 other students met for three-hour classes four nights a week.

Taught by a professional chef, Robinson learned about  all ends of the restaurant and hotel industry – food inspection, hotel maintenance and customer service. In the end, Robinson received 14 credits that he eventually transferred to TCI, a for-profit college that took over Interboro.

According to BEOC’s enrollment manager, Darron Henry, there hasn’t been an increase in enrollment in the past few years. But the program has had a 10 percent increase in applicants: it received over 8,000 last year but has funding for only 25 percent.

BEOC isn’t the only school offering low-cost or free certificate programs.

Most community colleges have these programs. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College the Continuing Education and Workforce Development program offers 30 certificate programs.

According to Patrick Bails, director of career training for the Continuing Education Program, BMCC has seen an increased enrollment especially in the certificate programs. In the past, the certificate programs attracted students looking for programs that fulfilled personal goals but now many more students want certificates for job training.

Both Henry and Bails say the students in the certificate programs go on to find work.

While many believe an undergraduate degree is important in finding a job, Bails has found employers welcome those with certificates. In fields like real estate, a certificate is more important to employers.

“We do find that while a degree is important, certificates are just as much in demand that’s why our chancellor focuses on certification,” he said.

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