Higher Education Innovation In Action

The Future of the Academic Transcript – Do Certificates Cheapen the Brand?

J. James Wager, Education Strategist and Industry Guru | Jun 25, 2019

The traditional standard bearer demonstrating academic success has been the good old “sheep skin”; the diploma representing completion of a degree program.  New opportunities and demands in today’s results-driven environment are introducing other measures of success.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of leading an external evaluation for a moderate size state college that was located near several national universities.  The college’s Provost shared with me his competitive advantage vision that was both dramatic and insightful.  He recognized the college could not directly compete with these national universities because of their size, reputation, resources, and facilities.  But his school could do something that these national universities could not accomplish.  As part of the curricular process, each graduate of the college completed BOTH a baccalaureate degree and a professional certificate related to their major.  This dual approach of degree and certificate provided their graduates with a strong competitive advantage.  Clever!

The Lumina Foundation states, “Too many Americans are failing to graduate college. Why?  In part, because our assumptions about them are wrong.  Most of us envision college students as 18- to 21-year-olds fresh out of high school. That's no longer the reality.”  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), the enrollment rate of students over the age of 25 is growing faster than for students under the age of 25.  Over 30 schools included in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings had enrollments greater than 50% of students over the age of 25, with many exceeding 75%.  Clearly the age demographic in the U.S, higher education sector is changing, as are the graduation expectations of the students.

Certificate programs from colleges and universities are not new, in fact, some programs were introduced over a century ago though correspondence study.  In today’s environment, and especially with adult students, the growth and impact of certificate programs have been significant.  As contrasted to traditional baccalaureate degree programs, certificate programs require less time and credits to complete, focus on a specific topic eliminating “general education” type courses, are designed to master or refresh a skill, are available at both undergraduate and graduate levels, are offered both on-ground and on-line, and earned credits can be transferred to a degree program. 

This flexibility and application has created high demand for quality certificate programs at the baccalaureate, masters, and doctorate levels.  Hundreds of schools, including big names such as Johns Hopkins, Harvard, George Washington, and Stanford, have intentionally focused on the creation and delivery of new certificate programs.  Areas of study are very diverse and include curriculums such as cybersecurity, regulatory compliance, computer forensics, health information management, and many more. 

At the associate degree level, certificates are providing work force opportunities in areas such as property management, paralegal, real estate, digital photography, human services, bookkeeping/payroll, and hundreds of applied life skills that enhance current employment or prepare the student for a career change.

At all levels, it is common for professionals to extend their professional licensing or certification through the completion of certificate programs.  In fact, the awarding of certificates has become the fastest growing academic credential.  

Despite the growing need of the workforce and the availability of certificate programs by the academy, some view certificates as underrepresenting student success:

  • There remains a stigma that the awarding of a certificate is at best a step-child to the awarding of a degree.
  • The proliferation of certificates issued by diploma mills and non-accredited schools adds to the negative perceptions of certificates in general.
  • In too many cases, certificates are issued by a department office and cannot be verified by the school’s registrar.
  • Transcripts typically do not adequately describe the certificate program.
  • Printed certificates may more resemble a document prepared on the student’s desktop and local printer and not a school issued document.

A recent study conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce made several interesting conclusions regarding certificate programs, including:

  • Certificates represent 22 percent of all college awards, up from only 6 percent three decades ago.
  • For 10 percent of American workers, a certificate is the highest form of post-high school education.
  • Collegiate certificates are time-in-classroom based, while industry based certifications are awarded based on proficiency.
  • More than a third of certificate holders also have an earned (associate, baccalaureate, or graduate) degree.
  • Certificate/diploma holders earn more than their counterparts with only a diploma.

So, are certificate programs lessening the brand?  There is growing evidence that indicates just the opposite.  But there is also a growing demand on schools and registrars to adequately and completely present the important value of certificate programs with the same rigor and authentication techniques that are applied to the academic transcript.