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Institutional Reporting of Certificates

The Working Group interviewed representatives from nine IPEDS reporting entities to begin to understand ways that institutions report subbaccalaureate certificates to IPEDS. Institutional representatives were asked about general reporting practices, challenges with interpreting IPEDS definitions and instructions, and experiences with defining subbaccalaureate certificate awards and certificate programs.

General IPEDS Reporting Practices

Institutions complete the submission of their IPEDS data in different ways. In some cases, each institution reports its own data to IPEDS. In other cases, institutions report to a central office that, in turn, completes their IPEDS reporting requirements. One system office that reports all certificate awards to IPEDS for its colleges reported that there are differences in certificate reporting among its colleges. The system office approves all certificate programs that are 12 or more credits, and institutions must report those awards to the system office. However, certificates earned with less than 12 credits are approved at the institution or regional level and are not required to be reported to the system office. According to a system representative, some institutions report certificates less than 12 credits and some do not report these certificates to the system office. If the institution has not reported the certificates awarded to the system office, then those certificate awards would not be reported to IPEDS.

Reporting Short-Term Certificates

Institutions award certificates for programs with credit and contact hour requirements that vary widely, particularly for certificates reported in the "less than 1 year" category. Among the institutions reviewed, certificates reported in the IPEDS category of "less than 1 year" could be earned with as few as 3 semester credits; however, most certificate programs were 12 to 29 credits. One public 2-year institution reported that about 1,800 of their 2,594 less than 1-year certificates were programs completed by earning 6 credits. Two institutions reviewed operate on a clock-hour basis and certificates could be earned from programs completed in 45 clock hours to 750 clock hours.

Through discussions with institutional representatives, the Working Group learned that there were differences among institutions in reporting certificates earned with less than 12 credits. Some institutions reported all certificates, while others used 12 credits as the cut-off point to determine whether a certificate should be reported to IPEDS. Although the IPEDS instructions ask institutions to report all certificates earned as the result of the completion of a credit-bearing program of study, not all institutions do so. The reasons some institutions do not report all certificates are unclear, but may be related to: a perceived credit minimum for reporting certificates, a belief that only certificates awarded for the completion of Title IV eligible programs should be reported, or a belief that only state-reviewed programs are considered "formal." For example, one public less than 2-year institution did not report its home health aide certificates earned with 5 to 9 credits to IPEDS. Conversely a public 2-year institution reported all certificates awarded including those earned with as little as 1 semester credit.

Stackable or Embedded Certificates

At all but two of the institutions reviewed, certificates could be earned while a student was working on another certificate or enrolled in a degree program at the institution. In some instances, a certificate was designed to be completed and then subsequently those credits were applied toward another certificate or a degree. For example, at one public 2-year institution a student enrolled in Fire Science could earn up to four different certificates that could then be combined into one technical certificate (31-45 credits). That technical certificate is also embedded within an associate's degree of 61 credits. Each of the certificates earned would be reported in IPEDS, meaning up to five certificates and one associate's degree could be reported to IPEDS for one student in this Fire Science program. The "embedded" approach could also be less formal. A few institutions noted that students may be working on an associate's or bachelor's degree and complete courses that would then make them eligible to earn a specialized certificate. One representative used the example of students working on an accounting degree may take one or two courses in finance that would earn them a certificate in banking or finance. At the 2-year public institutions and the private nonprofit 4-year institution reviewed, certificates were also called "stackable," where students may earn a series of certificates in consecutive order and completing one certificate makes them eligible to enroll in a different certificate program.

Determination of a Formal Program of Study

IPEDS defines certificates as a formal award, and most of the certificate programs at the institutions interviewed had undergone a formal review process. At all but one of the institutions, certificate programs were formally approved by a system or institutional office that would include a curriculum review, and because most certificates are vocationally focused, reviews include determination of whether the program aligned with business or industry needs. The four community colleges reviewed for this report all had system-level reviews for programs of study; however, the minimum number of credits that required the programs to be reviewed at the system level ranged from 12 to 30. There is the possibility that some institutions and systems consider only those certificates awarded as the result of completion of programs that had undergone system-level reviews necessary for IPEDS reporting.

Nonindependent Programs of Study

At one 4-year institution, it was not clear that all certificates were awarded based on an independent program of study, but rather were awarded after completing a set of courses in a particular field of study. For example, of the more than 60 certificate programs at one public 4-year institution, most certificates could be awarded to any bachelor's degree-seeking student who completed four or five courses in a specific area (e.g., marketing research or culinary arts). Further, comparison of IPEDS data and institutional websites reveals that at least one public 4-year institution awards certificates for what is essentially a concentration within a major. For example, a history major who has taken a given number of courses in Korean history would be awarded a certificate in Korean history. In both examples above, a student could not have applied to the institution for the specific purpose of getting the certificate. Instead, these certificates are awarded as the result of a sequence of classes taken as part of fulfilling bachelor's degree requirements.

Title IV Eligible Programs

Another key distinction between certificates reported in IPEDS is whether the certificate program was eligible for Title IV financial aid. At seven of the nine institutions reviewed, most certificate programs were Title IV eligible. However, among the 4-year institutions interviewed, none of the certificate programs were eligible for Title IV aid. Among the institutions reviewed, most report certificate awards in IPEDS regardless of whether the program was eligible for Title IV federal financial aid or not. Moreover, representatives at all the institutions interviewed were able to readily identify certificate programs that were Title IV eligible. According to a representative of a public 2-year institution, the institution recently began to code certificates by Title IV eligibility. The institution did this because many of the programs were 1 semester credit certificates and were not eligible for Title IV aid.

Subbaccalaureate Certificates Not Reported to IPEDS

Seven of the institutions offered certificates for completing noncredit courses, adult education, English as a Second Language, basic education, or career development courses. At a few of the institutions, noncredit certificates also prepared students for certification exams; but, according to institution officials, these certificates were not reported to IPEDS. At two of the institutions, data for noncredit certificates were collected in separate databases than those used for collecting credit-based certificates. Many of the noncredit certificate programs were developed to meet the workforce needs of the surrounding region, provide specialized skills for specific employers, or offer general career-related skills, such as leadership training or learning Spanish for business. Several representatives stated that they did not document the number of certificates awarded through these programs. Representatives of a public 4-year and private nonprofit 4-year institution stated that their institution is exploring offering industry certification programs, but that any certificate awarded for these programs would not be reported to IPEDS because it would not include any of the institution's credit-bearing courses.