Blog: Retroactive Degrees – Who Benefits?

In one of our National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (NPEC) reports for NCES on the topic of postsecondary certificates, we learned from state and institutional representatives (institutional researchers with expertise in reporting and using IPEDS data) that national completion initiatives are driving the practice of retroactively awarding degrees or certificates after students have left the institution. This is in theory a good practice: if a student has accumulated enough credits for a degree, but for example, transferred from a community college to a four-year institution without actually obtaining an associate degree, why not award it after the fact? That way if the student does not complete the four-year degree, they would at least have an associate degree with which to market themselves for a job.

The problem is that students often do not know they have been awarded the retroactive degree. In one state, a representative noted that at least 70 percent of students are unaware they received shorter-term certificates. And, in the case of short-term, stacked, and industry credentials, retroactive awards can be duplicative of the credits applied toward an associate degree. 

In one state, a representative noted that at least 70 percent of students are unaware they received shorter-term certificates.

Let’s say for example that a student receives an associate degree in nursing. When the institution later reviews their transcript and determines that the associate degree credits also count toward a shorter-term nursing certificate, should the student be retroactively awarded the certificate? What if the institution has no way of contacting the student – how will this retroactive degree benefit them? Or, is this practice more beneficial to the institution than the student, by increasing its completion numbers?

One state representative we spoke with felt that reporting these retroactive degrees results in misleading data, particularly in the way they are used by national reports to boost completion rates. The respondent noticed a growing divergence between the number of awards, and the number of completers. In some cases, a student could receive multiple certificates – one for each additional class completed beyond the core coursework in a single program. At one college, a retroactive awarding initiative led to large increases – roughly 12,000 certificates over five years.

This practice raises some interesting questions. For example, what if the student, unaware of the retroactive award, did not even enroll in the program? One state representative indicated that in most cases, students did not enroll in the certificate program for which they are retroactively receiving the award. They could have left the institution without any degree or with an associate’s degree in the same program as the retroactively awarded certificate. In the latter case, the state considers this to be a stacked credential, whereby several short-term awards make up a degree. 

While retroactively awarding degrees for which students earned the credits is a good idea in theory, the practice should be more closely scrutinized to ensure that students are truly benefiting from the award – first and foremost by being made aware of the award, thereby being able to include it as a credential on their resumés. Institutional policy discussions should focus on related requirements and ramifications, such as enrollment in the program and potential duplication in multiple levels of awards for the same program.