ANALYSIS: Bad Times, Good Times
Analysis: Bad Times, Good Times
Degree Awards Set Record Despite Rocky Educational Landscape
By Victor M. H. Borden,
Professor of Educational Leadership And Policy Studies,
University of Indiana Bloomington
Victor M. H. Borden
This has been a rocky year for higher education in the United States. States and local communities face the most severe financial constraints that have been experienced since most community colleges opened their doors. Federal panels abound examining the practices of all higher education institutions, questioning our costs, productivity and quality. Gainful employment rules and the tightening accreditation standards promise additional, unfunded mandates and new accountability requirements. In the middle of all of this, all institutions and community colleges in particular, struggle to offer a highly valued service to an increasingly diverse array of students and community partners with increasingly scarce resources.
So how are we doing? If the sheer quantity of students attaining degrees and other formal awards is any measure of success — and many argue it’s the most important measure — then this year’s data on associate degree and other pre-baccalaureate certificates is good news. Based on preliminary national data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of associate degrees, one-year certificates, and two-year certificates reached an all-time high and both the numerical and percentage increase over the past year are the largest in recent history for all three award types.
This year’s analysis of the Top 100 associate degree, one-year certificate, and two-year certificate producers examines the awards conferred during the 2009-10 academic year. We include in this issue lists for top producers, overall, and across a range of disciplines and professions. After describing the data source and methods used to assemble the lists, we include in this introductory article our usual review of recent trends as well as a new, special analysis of the changes over the last 10 years in the types of institutions and the general fields of study in which associate degrees and one- and two-year certificates have been awarded.
The data for this analysis are collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Set (IPEDS) completions survey. The preliminary data available at this time are complete and accurate for those institutions included in the data sets, but not every eligible institution is yet included. The data are typically complete for the vast majority of public and private, non-profit colleges and universities, but slightly less complete for proprietary institutions, particularly those that offer only certificates. These limitations rarely impact more than a few dozen among the 5,000 or so institutions that confer these degrees and certificates, and those excluded from the preliminary dataset are usually relatively small institutions.
Title IV Institutions
We include within the analysis Title IV eligible institutions; that is, those that are accredited by either a regional or specialized accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. We also limit this analysis geographically to include only those institutions in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, excluding institutions in U.S. territories and protectorates, such as Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa, as well as the U.S. service academies, such as the Community College of the Air Force, which includes more than 100 schools and offers programs at locations around the world.
The institutions that report this data use a set of definitions and standards provided by the National Center for Education Statistics. The field of study completed by the student is categorized using an elaborate system of codes known as the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP). This common coding system allows us to compare degree and award program offerings across institutions. For this year’s survey, institutions were required to use a slightly revised set of CIP codes. One of the notable changes affecting the lists is that the popular field of nursing was split into two categories: one for the registered nurse and related specialties, the other for practical nursing and related specialties.
The method for capturing and reporting student race/ethnicity is in the final stages of a period of transition, moving from the traditional one question format (students selecting only one category from the choices: African American or Black; Asian American or Pacific Islander; American Indiana or Alaskan Native; Hispanic; and White, with individuals who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents being separately classified as Non-Resident Alien) to responses based on a two question format (first asking students if they are Hispanic or Latino and then asking them to select all that apply from the list: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White).
Under this new reporting format, any non-Hispanic, U.S. citizen or permanent resident who selects more than one of these five categories is to be reported in a separate category, “Two or More Races.” For this year’s report, we introduce this new multi-racial category to our list that includes the racial and ethnic distribution of degrees conferred.
Top 100 Listings
The Top 100 listings include institutions that have awarded the largest number of associate degrees and certificates. The primary listings each contain approximately 100 total institutions. The precise number depends on the number of ties at the bottom of the list. If a large number of institutions are tied at the 99th rank (10 or more), then they will all be excluded and the list will end at 98. On the other hand, if a few institutions are tied at the 99th rank, the list will be expanded to include all of them.
Lists that include both two-year and four-year institutions show first the degrees or certificates conferred by two-year institutions, followed by those conferred by four-year institutions. However the rankings are determined by the overall order, and so there may be some “gaps” in the two-year listing that correspond to a four-year institution listed later.
We also include lists that feature institutions that confer the most associate degrees and one- and two-year certificates to men and women of color, as collected through the race/ethnicity categories mentioned earlier.
Finally, the disciplinary/vocation lists include only the top 50 institutions, with the same caveats as the Top 100 lists regarding the varying number of institutions depending on ties at the bottom rank.
The record percentage increases in awards is shown at the bottom of the first table — 16.5 percent for one-year certificates; 11.9 percent for two-year certificates; and 7.9 percent for associate degrees. The accelerated rate of increase over the last two years can be seen in the accompanying graph as an uptick from a more stable rate of change across the prior four years. Whether spurred by the economic downturn, population upturns or more productive institutions, the record numbers for all three awards come at a time when pressure for increasing the number of degree-credentialed adults has also reached an all-time high.
Similar to prior year analyses, we examine in the second table the change in associate degree and pre-baccalaureate certificates according to sector. Because some community colleges are now officially considered to be four-year institutions by virtue of offering some bachelor’s degrees, we include in the top rows of the table institutions classified as “Associate’s Colleges” in the basis classification of the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. Although the numbers are still relatively small, the table shows that the largest percentage growth in award conferrals is among the “four-year” institutions within the public associate’s category. This reflects the shift of institutions from the two-year to the four-year category over this time period. The other largest growth sector in percentage terms is the proprietary four-year sector, where the University of Phoenix online campus alone conferred more associate degrees in 2009-10 than the next six institutions in the total Top 100 list combined. The proprietary sector is also the dominant player among the “less than 2-year” institutions in conferring one- and two-year certificates, conferring almost as many one-year certificates as public associate’s institutions, but less than half as many two-year certificates.
In this year’s issue, we provide a set of graphs that look at the changes in combined production of associate degrees and pre-baccalaureate certificates by institutional level (two-year vs. four-year) and control (public, private-non-profit and private-for-profit). The institutional level graphs shows that while two-year institutions still dominate for each award type, the four-year sector has experienced more significant growth, as reflected by the percentage increases. It is also interesting to note that “less than two-year institutions” have actually experienced a decline in awarding one-year certificates. Table 1 shows that this decrease is primarily among the public sector institutions at this level.
The graphs that portray the change in award production by control show that the public sector still dominates in associate degree production, although the proprietary sector has picked up some market share. With regard to two-year certificates, the proprietary institutions have gained the majority market share over the past ten years. Private, non-profit controlled institutions continue to play a very minor role in conferring these pre-baccalaureate awards.
The final three charts in this analysis examine the changing nature of fields of study for these three award types. The first of these charts, focusing on one-year certificates, shows that there has been growth in only two disciplinary areas. The most significant area of growth, by far, is in health care disciplines, where the share of one-year certificates doubled from just over one-quarter to fully one-half of all such certificates conferred. The only other disciplinary area that showed modest growth was vocational and trade disciplines, such as mechanics/repairs and production trades.
A very similar pattern occurred for two-year certificates, although not quite as skewed toward health disciplines as for one-year certificates.
Health Disciplines on Rise
Among associate degrees, health disciplines also showed strong growth, moving up from the third-most-popular disciplinary area ten years ago to the second most popular currently. In doing so, it surpassed business degrees, which exhibited the lowest percentage increase in growth. Degrees in general studies, which include general liberal arts disciplines, remained the largest single area and still accounts for more than one-half of all associate degrees conferred. Although still including much smaller numbers of degrees, significant growth was evident for degrees in protective service disciplines; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines; and education.
The growing preeminence of health field degrees is not surprising, given the continued strong demand for health professionals. Perhaps more intriguing is the continuing strength of general studies degrees. General studies programs often focus on transfer preparation, but also provide a pathway for individually tailored programs of study and for students to explore a variety of options. Given the growing emphasis on the vocational and professional preparation roles of postsecondary education, it is interesting to note that a more academically oriented degree still dominates among associate degree completers.
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