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Nobody Knows How Well Certificates Are Doing Against Degrees

diploma, certificate and graduation cap

A recent analysis found major underreporting of certificate completions. Richard Garrett, chief research officer at higher education research firm Eduventures, recently examined whether the certificate was "muscling in" on degrees. First impressions suggested that the certificate market will never reach the heights of the degree market. For example, a study of IPEDS data found that while undergraduate certificates grew by 53 percent over the course of 20 years, bachelor's degrees grew by 65 percent. And while graduate certificates grew by a whopping 247 percent, compared to 194 percent for master's degrees, the number of total graduate certificates issued was a fraction of the total of degrees, 64,000 compared to 800,000.

However, this kind of number-crunching may not tell the whole story about certificates, warned Garrett, calling the data that tracks certificate issuance "rubbish." As a result, certificate issuance may be wildly undercounted. There are several reasons for this, he wrote.

First, there's a great deal of confusion among institutions about how many credit hours a certificate requires to be reported to IPEDS; frequently, the reporting will refer to criteria that are no longer part of the reporting rules.

Next, the "Gainful Employment" regulations put in place during the previous administration and suspended by the current one requires for-profits and nonprofits running non-eligible programs to report annual completion alongside debt repayment data. For schools that have low enrollments in those programs, they've chosen to relinquish access to federal aid by opting out of reporting altogether.

Also, IPEDS guidance has instructed schools not to report on certificates when they're earned by a student who has achieved a degree at a higher level as well.

It's also the case that third parties, such as coding bootcamps, may choose not to report their certificate completions at all.

Finally, wrote Garrett, MOOC platforms that issue certificates of competition don't report their results to any government entity, which leaves those counts out of any official tally.

Plenty of institutions have healthy certificate programs and very few completions, if the numbers are to be believed, said Garrett. For example, the University of Wisconsin, Madison has 63 certificate programs; yet the university reported very few completions. In the latest "data digest," the university reported a total of 279,540 bachelor's degrees completed across all of its schools by alumni, but only 7,405 certificates.

As Garrett concluded, "Practice is miles ahead of good data." He added that Educause predicted that over the next two years, "MOOC and commercial certificate providers will start to announce big certificate enrollment and completion numbers. Once the figures look good enough, providers won't hesitate to trumpet their success." That, he expected, will lead to better analysis of the impact of certificates on degrees. Until then, he noted, "Colleges and universities, please report all of your credit-bearing certificate to IPEDS."

The full article is available on the website of Eduventures owner Encoura.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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