Graduate Certificate Programs Pose Admissions Challenges
Senior Fellow, Howard University Graduate School
President, Certificate Program Workshops, Inc.
At this beginning of the 21st century, graduate education is undergoing many changes that affect all of us who are involved in the graduate enterprise. These changes range from the re-examination of the PhD by the Carnegie Foundation and others; to the emergence of interdisciplinary programs and the impact on traditional academic structures; to the efforts to prepare students for the professoriate through initiatives such as the Preparing Future Faculty program.
However, many would agree that perhaps the greatest change in graduate education in the past few years has been the emergence of a relatively new type of post-baccalaureate, non-degree program, generally known as a graduate certificate program.
I have attempted to follow this phenomenon in graduate education over the past few years, and have been frankly amazed at the impact that these programs have had on graduate education in just a very short time. As I reported in US News and World Report , the Continuing Higher Education Review , and elsewhere recently, my data indicate that more students will receive graduate certificates in the United States this year than will receive PhDs.
In brief, a graduate certificate program is a relatively short-term program that gives the student an expertise in a coherent body of knowledge, with the requirements of the program also satisfying the university’s requirements for work of graduate standing. Many graduate certificate programs consist of 12 to 18 graduate semester credit hours, with the courses often being drawn from the existing body of graduate curriculum offerings at the university.
These certificate programs have emerged in many disciplines and in many universities throughout the land. Until recently, I had estimated that such programs could be found at approximately 500 universities. However, a detailed pilot study of universities in the St. Louis area  that I conducted recently has indicated that the estimate of 500 should probably be revised upward by a factor of two or three.
How will – or how does – this phenomenon impact graduate admissions professionals? In some cases, perhaps not at all. But in many other cases, the issues around admissions requirements for graduate certificate programs are perhaps the most controversial in the overall design of such programs.
To set the stage for this discussion, let us first consider some of the reasons that universities might consider in developing certificate programs:
Graduate certificate programs are often administered by the graduate school, and often also by the school of continuing education. I urged in the Continuing Higher Education Review , the journal of the University Continuing Education Association, that the ideal approach to administering graduate certificate programs involves a partnership of the graduate school and the school of continuing education.
It is usually in the graduate school’s interest in the design of the certificate program to provide a smooth path for the student from the certificate to a related degree program.
Although this is also usually in keeping with the student’s interest, the adoption of this principle – the principle of the linkage of the certificate program to a master’s or doctoral program, creates a number of challenges in defining the admissions requirements.
While serving as Dean in Residence for the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in 1999, I conducted a survey  of over 200 universities on their policies regarding certificate programs.
Regarding admissions requirements, the responses to this question in the survey indicated a high degree of variation in our views on who is admissible to graduate certificate programs. The responses varied from no requirements whatsoever to a requirement that the certificate students be already enrolled in one of the institution’s master’s or doctoral programs.
On the assumption that the university wishes to ensure that the graduate certificate program operates at a level that represents the quality of the graduate school and its offerings, the question of admissions requirements needs to be addressed. Graduate certificate programs that have either no requirements or only the completion of the bachelor’s degree; or, alternatively, graduate certificate programs that require that the student meet all the requirements for admission to a master’s or doctoral program will likely create problems for the graduate school and the university in the long run.
In order to gain acceptability with the university community, a graduate certificate program should represent the graduate-level offerings of the institution. If there are either no requirements or only the evidence of a prior first degree, it is unlikely that the program will be held in respect by the graduate faculty and administration as a graduate-level program.
Why are graduate certificate programs of interest to universities? In large part, the interest has been driven by the marketplace. Potential students, companies, government agencies, and professional societies have indicated the need for shorter-term, specialized graduate programs such as graduate certificate programs.
The Boeing Corporation is one which has aggressively urged the development of graduate certificate programs at numerous universities. Indeed, this model of industry-university cooperation is worthy of note.
Some at Boeing have expressed frustration that a lengthy admissions process, including measures such as the GRE, becomes self-defeating if the purpose of the graduate certificate program is a short-term specialized program emphasis.
A reasonable solution in many cases would seem to be a category of graduate school admission that I have called “graduate admission with qualifications.” In different institutions, different names are given to this category --- non-degree status, probationary admission, and so on. If there is any commonality to these categories, it is that the GRE or related requirement is waived or deferred, and the undergraduate grade point requirement may not be the same as for regular admission; on the other hand, references or professional experience may be given more consideration than with regular admission.
Actual practice in the community varies considerably. In the survey I conducted for CGS, 23.8% of respondents use the bachelor’s degree as the admissions requirement; 20.6% require full graduate student admission; and 31.7% use the “graduate admissions with qualifications.” When combined with a related study I conducted for the University Continuing Education Association, these figures became 36.4%, 14.7%, and 17.9% respectively.
Should the university allow credits to be transferred to the graduate certificate program, either from within or without the university? Or should the student only be allowed to take courses leading to the graduate certificate once she or he has been admitted to the program?
Generally speaking, universities allow transfer credit for graduate certificate programs. One rule of thumb has been to fix the amount of transfer credit to the percentage allowed for transfer into a master’s program. In other words, a university that allowed 12 hours of transfer to its 36-hour master’s program might consider allowing 33% of the credit for the graduate certificate to be transferred in, say, 6 hours of an 18-hour program.
It should be recognized, as more and more graduate education is delivered via a distance format, and with national and international clearinghouses for distance education courses such as the Southern Regional Electronic Campus, and Western Governors University, that the notion of transfer credit may change radically or disappear. My survey for CGS reported that 75.8% of institutions allow external credit.
Both admissions issues and credit transfer issues, although sometimes vexing, are certainly not unresolvable, and, once resolved, the institution of certificate programs can significantly increase the number of students doing graduate work at a university and enhance the graduate enterprise. In my electronic newsletter, Certificate News, I periodically post a David Letterman-style “top ten” list of the institutions with the greatest number of certificate students. A significant number of universities now report numbers in the four-digit range for their numbers of certificate students. (Incidentally, anyone who would like to receive this free newsletter electronically may do so by sending me an email at: email@example.com.)
Certificate programs have already provided a significant diversification in the graduate enterprise in the United States, and they are emerging in many other countries as well. As this movement grows, it is hoped that it provides opportunities for students and for universities in graduate education that significantly increase flexibility, timeliness, and service to their communities.
 “The new mini-degrees,” U.S. News & World Report, Special Issue: Best Graduate Schools, April 14, 2002, p. 46.
 Wayne Patterson, Ensuring the Quality of Certificate Programs, Continuing Higher Education Review, Fall 2001, pp. 112-127.
 Certificate Programs in Detail in the St. Louis Area, Certificate News, vol. 3, no. 6, December 2002.
 Wayne Patterson, A Model of Shared Leadership for Graduate Certificate Programs, Continuing Higher Education Review, Fall 1999, pp. 69-80.
 Wayne Patterson, Analyzing Policies and Procedures for Graduate Certificate Programs, Council of Graduate Schools, July 1999. www.cgsnet.org/pdf/analysis.html.
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