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2016 September 20 - 06:54 am

Downward Trend Slows

Short-Term Certificate Conferrals Accelerate


After two years of slight declines, the number of associate degrees conferred by U.S. postsecondary institutions increased slightly in 2014-15, although not quite reaching the historic high of 2012. Conferrals of certificates requiring less than one year of study reached an all-time high, whereas the longer-term, “at least one, but less than two-year certificates” continued the recent downward trend after reaching historical peaks during the great recession (peaking in 2010). In the current analysis, we examine associate degrees and subtwo-year certificates conferred during academic year 2014-15, the most recent year of nationally available data, which was released by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in early July.

Among the 7,647 postsecondary institutions that report enrollment and completion data to NCES, 5,589 met the criteria to be included in this analysis.

Specifically, we consider “Title IV” participating institutions (those which can dispense Title IV federal student financial assistance) that are open to the public (excluding military service institutions), are located in the 50 U.S. states or Washington, D.C., and conferred at least one associate’s degree or sub-two-year certificate. We list in this issue the top producers of each credential type (associate degrees, <1 year certificates, and 1 to <2 year certificates) overall, and across a range of disciplines and vocations.

Institutions report their degrees to NCES using a common taxonomy, known as the Classification of Instructional Program (CIP) codes. CIP codes are structured in a hierarchy, ranging from very general categories (for example, 51 - Health), to subcategories (for example, 51.08 - Allied Health and Medical Assisting Service) and finally to detailed disciplines or vocations (for example, 51.0806 – Physical Therapy Technician/Assistant). Within this analysis, we focus primarily on the highest level of aggregation. For several areas, like Health and Business, we also provide some lists for the second order subcategories. We determined which subcategories to highlight based on popularity (number of degrees and certificates conferred).

The lists that include all disciplinary categories contain at least 100 total institutions, although the precise number depends on the number of ties at the bottom of the list. Most lists include both two-year and four-year institutions. The two-year institutions are listed together followed by the four-year institutions. However the rankings are determined by the overall order, and so there are some “gaps” in ranking values within each group. We include lists that feature institutions that confer the most associate’s degrees and < 1 year and 1 to <2-year certificates to men and women of color, as collected through the race/ethnicity categories. Student race/ethnicity is selfreported by students, typically when they first enter an institution. By federal law, institutions are required to collect information on student race/ethnicity information using the two-question format.

Students first indicate if they are Hispanic or Latino and separately indicate racial/ethnic identify by checking all that apply from the list: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian American; Black or African American; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander; and White. When reporting the data within the Completions survey, institutional respondents are required to use the U.S. Office of Management and Budget protocols for federal reporting that puts each student into a single category based on their responses to the two questions. First, anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident is reported as a “Non-Resident Alien.” Next anyone who answers “yes” to the Hispanic/Latino question is reported within that category. Non-Hispanics who select more than one racial/ethnic group are reported as “Two or More Races” or “Multiracial”. Finally, the remaining non-Hispanic, U.S. citizens or permanent residents are reported in the single racial/ethnic category that they selected in response to the second question.

Lists for specific major fields (disciplines and vocations) include the top 50 ranks with the same caveat regarding additional institutions included that are tied at the last rank.

Types of Institutions

Our first table in this summary examines the types of institutions conferring the target credentials by sector (institutional level and control), with one adjustment. Specifically, we pull out of the four-year, public sector the growing number of former community colleges that became four-year institutions once they started conferring at least one bachelor’s degree.

These institutions, which include, for example, all the former community colleges of Florida, confer primarily associate degrees. Indeed, they are classified as “predominantly associate’s institutions” within the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education because over 90 percent of the undergraduate degrees they confer are at the associate’s level. Although relatively small in number (70 institutions), these institutions tend to be very large in size and so contribute notably to the conferral of associate degrees and the short-term certificates we consider here.

The Public Associate’s sector, which includes both current public, two-year institutions, as well as the predominantly associate’s degree institutions, account for three-quarters of all associate’s degrees and two-thirds of the short-term (<1 year) certificates. They account for slightly less than one-half of the longer term certificates, where for-profit, nondegree-granting institutions come into play, conferring nearly one-quarter of these longer-term, sub-two-year certificates.

Traditional public, four-year institutions now account for one in five associate degrees, with the for-profit institutions among these having the largest share among four-year institutions (9 percent), followed by public (6 percent) and then closely by non-profit private institutions (5 percent).

Trends in Conferrals

We examine in Figures 1 through 4 the long-term trends in associate’s degree and sub-two-year certificates, starting from academic year 1990-91 through the most recently available data representing academic year 2014-15. Figure 1 illustrates roughly parallel trends for the associate’s degree and the two sub-two year certificates. Both associate degrees and the longer-term of the two certificates experienced notable spike of growth related to the Great Recession, followed more recently by modest declines. As noted at the start of this article, associate’s degrees and the shorter term certificate (<1 year) had an uptick in conferrals in 2014-15 to near record levels for associate’s degrees and a new record level for the shorter-term certificate.

The credential-specific Figures 2 through 4 disaggregate the overall trend for each type of award by gender. For each award type, the charts show the trend for conferrals to men and women separately (referenced to the numbers on the left vertical axis), along with a “percent female” trend line (referenced to the percentages on the right vertical axis). Women represent the majority of recipients of all three credentials, with the largest majority evident among the < 1 year certificate programs.

Major Trends

Some 25 years ago, I wrote the first of these analyses of top degree producers. In recognition of this long history, we conclude this analysis by taking a look at what were the most popular majors for students receiving associate degrees and sub-two-year certificates in the first year of data analyzed, 1989-90, compared to this year’s (2014-15) data. It is important to note when  examining these changes, that the taxonomy for collecting major information has changed several times over the years. The 1989-90 analysis used the first CIP Code taxonomy, published in 1985. There have been notable revisions to that taxonomy in 1990, 2000, and 2010. It is therefore interesting to note some of the changes in the category labels.

The top portion of the table on majors, shows the Top 10 areas in which associate degrees were conferred in 1989-90, compared to 2014-15. The top category, which represents the “transfer degree” for students intending to subsequently pursue a bachelor’s degree, has increased from accounting for over one-quarter (28 percent) to over one-third (36 percent) of all associate’s degrees conferred. The Top 10 also continues to include Health, Business, and Engineering Technologies, with Health showing the greatest gains in proportions of degrees: from 14 percent in 1989-90 (if you include both Health Professions and Health Technicians) to 20 percent in 2014-15. We also see in the change, a name change for what was Criminal Justice and Protective Services, to Homeland Security and Protective Services, certainly marking a more general change in culture related to current concerns with terrorism.

The conferral of “transfer certificates,” is also new to the list, representing the development of general education modules within several state two-year sectors that can be used to fulfill the requirements at four-year institutions without actually having received the transfer degree. The 1-<2-year certificates, like the associate’s degrees, also reflects the shift of Commercial Arts into Visual & Performing Arts (a taxonomy restructuring), as well as the phasing out of the category labeled as “Equipment Technologies, which included such majors as Computer Network Technician; Industrial Equipment Maintenance & Repair; Musical Instrument Repair; and Aircraft Technician. Several of these disciplines now appear in Mechanic & Repair Technologies, but some have shifted into other vocational areas, like Aviation Technologies.

Indeed, it appears that the more substantive changes have been in the disciplinary taxonomy rather than in the actual areas of major concentration among students. Health professions have appeared to increase somewhat in popularity and the category including Culinary Services has also seen an increase in popularity and Business continues to be a top area of interest. Perhaps, most notably, the numbers themselves have increased most substantially, as illustrated in the trend charts and these Top 10 lists. Victor M.H. Borden is professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Indiana University Bloomington

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