Fortis College Bolsters Student Employability With Certification Requirement

by Julie Ritzer Ross | Oct 25, 2013

At some institutions, paying and sitting for certification exams is an option, rather than a requirement. But for students of Fortis College in Centerville, OH, this is not the case. Here, tuition covers the cost of test vouchers, while taking and passing at least two certification exams constitutes a prerequisite for graduation. The latter requirement not only helps more graduates find jobs faster; it distinguishes the school from similar local institutions.

Filling A Gap

Fortis College Centerville is the flagship campus of 53 post-secondary, for-profit career training schools operated by Baltimore, MD-based Education Affiliates. Its 18-month Cyber Security and Forensic Program was introduced in April 2011, expanding a previously narrow focus on the nursing and allied health professions, according to Dan Neville, department chair, Information Technology Programs. He said, “General Motors, which had had a tremendous presence in the Dayton area, pulled out, resulting in layoffs and opening doors for re-training workers. At the same time, we recognized that IT is a rapidly changing field, with cybersecurity and computer forensics becoming integral parts of every IT department.”

Fortis’ goal in introducing the program was to be ahead of the curve by being the first entity of its kind to offer a program designed to prepare students to investigate cyber-crimes; test and ensure network and cybersecurity; identify how hackers break into systems; and draw evidence from computers, email and cell phones.

Neville and his colleagues also noticed that while students graduating from nearby institutions with associate-level degrees possessed the academic knowledge and/or experience to procure IT jobs, employers were not so quick to hire them because they lacked certifications. Consequently, they built the content of the Cyber Security and Forensic Program around nine certifications, among them CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Security+ and CompTIA Linux+. To encourage students to sit for exams upon completing their education, the cost of exam vouchers was incorporated into tuition and fees.

But despite the free vouchers, few students pursued certification of any kind. Some claimed it made no sense for them to invest time in exam preparations, given that earning a certification was not mandatory. Even the fact that their exam vouchers had already been paid for failed to influence their decision.

Fortis’ administrators eventually took the matter to the corporate level, proposing that all students enrolling at the school after a certain date be required to earn at least two certifications as a condition of their graduation. Members of the Education Affiliates team were skeptical that the new measure would work, but gave the go-ahead. Said Neville, “They told us we were crazy. Still, we had to give it a try in order to do more to prepare students for entering the job market.”

Strong Support

Such skepticism proved unfounded. Said Neville, “As soon as we made the announcement, the floodgates opened, and the race was on.” He attributed students’ enthusiasm in part to policies and practices instituted to support the change. For example, students still spend six months learning IT, OS and server fundamentals, followed by six months apiece on network security and computer forensics, to earn their Associate of Applied Science degree. However, classes run from Tuesday through Friday only, with Mondays reserved for tutoring. Instructors use free time at the end of each class for “skills drills,” and special “cramming sessions” are held during school breaks.

Fortis’ status as a CompTIA Academy Partner also enables it to provide a wide range of materials to assist students with exam preparation. Students can further sharpen their skills through paid work for an on-campus PC repair service. With instructors’ guidance, participants perform diagnostics, PC repairs, hardware upgrades, software optimizationand data backup onto flash drives.

Additionally, tuition still covers the cost of exam vouchers. Attaining a score of 90 percent on a practice exam earns students a voucher for the corresponding test, with one re-take allotted per exam. Once students have attained one certification, Fortis’ Career Services department is notified that they are ready to be considered for employment.

A World Of Difference

Neville said the assistance and incentives offered to students have bolstered their confidence in their ability to pass certification exams; 80 percent of candidates achieve this feat on their first try. Ninety percent of program graduates secure employment before or shortly after graduation or enroll in a bachelor-level degree program. Graduates earn an average entry-level salary of $34,000 annually.

Said Neville, “This may be a new program, but when students interview for jobs armed with a combination of experience, education and certifications, it makes the world of difference in hiring decisions.”

Fortis graduates Nathan Lanning and Simon Ireton know this first-hand. Lanning is employed as a network support specialist at Reynolds and Reynolds, a Dayton, OH-based automotive dealer support company. He said, “It may be very difficult for potential employers to identify which programs and degrees are really worthwhile and which ones are not.” He added, “Having CompTIA A+ and CompTIA Network+ certifications to complement my degree has caused employers to respect me more during the interview process and take my interest in their company much more seriously.”

Ireton works as a PC technician at Wright-Patterson Medical Center on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton. A desire to challenge himself led him to earn three certifications: CompTIA A+ ,CompTIA Network+ and CompTIA Security+. Ireton believes that this move was instrumental in helping him ace the interview for his current position. He stated, “I really do feel like a million bucks with my certifications under my belt because potential employers can see that I have been taught the essential skills an IT professional must have in order to be successful.”

Ireton added: "The interviewer said she usually asks people IT questions, but wasn't really going to ask me any since my certifications prove that I know what I’m doing. She did, however, ask me some questions over the most called-for issues, and with my knowledge I was able to answer correctly. Combining certifications, education, and experience was a win-win for me, and is for everyone.”

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