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Subbaccalaureate certificates, postsecondary awards conferred as the result of successful completion of a formal program of study below the baccalaureate level, have become more prominent in higher education over the last decade. Institutions of all sectors offer subbaccalaureate certificates, which can range in length from a few months to more than 2 years. Subbaccalaureate certificates provide individuals with a means for gaining specific skills and knowledge that can be readily transferred to the workforce.

Each year institutions report the number of awards conferred in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Completions component. The current IPEDS instructions state that institutions should report: “Formal awards conferred by the institution as the result of completion of an academic or occupational program of study. The instructional activity completed as part of the program of study must be credit-bearing, but can be measured in credit hours, contact hours, or some other unit of measurement.” Subbaccalaureate certificates are reported in three categories based on the program length, and measured in terms of an academic year, with a clock and credit hour equivalency. The three categories are defined as programs that are:

  • Less than 1 academic year (referred to in this report as short-term):
    Less than 900 clock hours, less than 30 semester credit hours, or less than 45 quarter credit hours.
  • At least 1 but less than 2 academic years (referred to in this report as moderate-term):
    At least 900 but less than 1,800 clock hours, at least 30 but less than 60 semester credit hours, or at least 45 but less than 90 quarter hours.
  • At least 2 but less than 4 academic years (referred to in this report as long-term):
    1,800 or more clock hours, 60 or more semester credit hours, or 90 or more quarter hours.

Subbaccalaureate certificates, in total, comprise a large share of all postsecondary awards. In 2010-11, about 1,057,000 subbaccalaureate certificates awarded by institutions that participated in federal Title IV financial aid programs were reported to IPEDS.1

This equates to almost a quarter of all postsecondary degrees and certificates awarded. Over the last decade, growth in the number of subbaccalaureate certificates awarded has been much higher than growth in associates or bachelor's degrees. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of subbaccalaureate certificates awarded has increased by 91 percent compared to a 63 percent increase in associate's degrees awarded and 38 percent increase in bachelor's degrees awarded.

Given the sharp increase in subbaccalaureate certificates, there is a need to better understand the wide variety of subbaccalaureate certificates reported to IPEDS. As part of its mission to promote the quality, comparability, and utility of postsecondary data, the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) convened a working group to examine subbaccalaureate certificates, which focused on the following questions:

  • How has subbaccalaureate certificate award reporting in IPEDS changed over the last few years?
  • How comparable are the certificate awards reported in IPEDS?
  • What types of subbaccalaureate certificates are not reported to IPEDS?
  • Are there ways that IPEDS could be modified to improve the quality of data reported on subbaccalaureate certificates?

To address these questions, the Working Group analyzed IPEDS subbaccalaureate certificate data and identified nine institutions for a more in-depth review of institutional practices for subbaccalaureate certificate reporting. The selected institutions represented different institutional sectors, varying student population sizes, and number of certificates awarded in a year. Some of the institutions reported their own IPEDS data, while other institutions' IPEDS data were reported by system offices on the institutions' behalf. Representatives from the institutions, and where appropriate system offices, were interviewed to gather detailed information on the types of certificates reported to IPEDS and institutional processes for reporting data.2

This report summarizes the findings related to the questions posed by the Working Group, and offers some recommendations for defining and reporting certificates in IPEDS in the future. Note that the Working Group's discussions focused specifically on subbaccalaureate certificates and references to certificates within this report are to certificates at that level. However, some of the recommendations outlined could have implications for the reporting of postbaccalaureate and postmaster's certificates as well.


1 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Fall 2011, Completions component (preliminary data).
2 Appendix A provides more information on the Working Group's process. The Working Group also examined the definition of certificates used in other federal data collections. More information can be found in Appendix B.