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Thinking of launching a certificate program? Avoid these mistakes

February 8, 2021, By Lauren Edmonds, Senior Director, Research Development

When unemployment peaked in 2009, enrollments in certificate programs grew at their fastest rate in years as students sought to learn new skills quickly. And while today’s economic outlook remains uncertain, so far, it appears student interest in short-format programs like certificates has again been piqued. Over two-thirds of polled Americans recently indicated they would pursue skills training or a non-degree credential whereas only one third indicated they would pursue a degree.


  • Did you know?

    EAB partners requested 70 research reports on alternative credentials and certificates from the Market Insights team in the last year.

For leaders looking to grow enrollments, launching a certificate program may seem like a good idea. But data limitations make it difficult to gauge student interest in certificate programs accurately, and institutions risk launching programs with overly optimistic enrollment expectations.

When thinking about launching certificate programs, here are three mistakes you’ll want to avoid:


Mistake #1: Expecting certificate conferral data to offer similar insight to degree conferral data

The most obvious source of student demand data is conferral data, accessed through the National Center for Education Studies (NCES). And when used longitudinally, conferral data can show:

  1. Student patterns: whether students increasingly or decreasingly complete programs within a particular field, and
  2. Institutional patterns: whether more or fewer institutions report conferrals within that field over time.

But certificate conferrals data is often incomplete when compared to the more robust data available at the degree level. Available NCES data only measures for-credit conferrals and not the non-credit conferrals which dominate the certificate market.

In addition to credit type, the reliability of certificate conferral data varies by program field. Fields such as speech-language pathology are well matched to identified CIP (Classification of Instructional Programming) codes because these fields also typically award credit, meaning their conferrals are likely reported to the NCES.

But fields such as business analytics, botanical health, and animal welfare do not match well to any identifiable CIP codes. And while our Professional and Adult Education Forum researchers aim to find the most relevant codes to uncover trends, the relationships between the available certificate data and the proposed subject matter can be too tenuous. This issue is more commonly found in certificates than degree programs because certificates often focus on more niche topics (think Title IX compliance).

On top of recognizing the differences between credit and non-credit certificates, administrators should also avoid assuming that certificate conferral data and degree conferral data are equally reliable indicators of student interest.


Mistake #2: Using available data to overstate your program opportunity

While certificate data can differ vastly from degree conferral data, using certificate data can still offer a broader perspective on related markets (e.g., larger field trends on the national scale). That said, proceed with caution when looking at larger field or geographical trends, or you may end up with an overly positive assessment of the market. In other words, don’t let a “proxy of a proxy” misinform your conception of a market as definitively open or growing when the reality is more ambiguous.

For example, take trauma and resilience certificate programs. This subject is often found within human services programs or departments, so completions analyses will often use the Human Services, General (44.0000) CIP code as a proxy. Using human services completions trends can show whether student demand has increased or decreased for this field over time and may indicate an overall direction. But using the trends for human services to state definitively the demand for a more niche trauma and resilience certificate risks falsely assuming fields and their subfields experience the same demand.

Potential risks when assessing certificate demand with available data
Common problems using certificate conferral data Example Risk
CIP code dominated by one particular subfield or credential Non-MBA graduate business programs Overstating demand for a particular subject by using trends from a similar but distinct field (e.g., MBA vs. business administration certificate programs)
Aggregation of several poorly aligned CIP codes Business analytics or data analytics Overstating demand by using several adjacent fields
Field too niche or too broad Trauma and resilience, animal welfare, general studies, liberal arts Superimposing larger field trends onto subfields
Field too new User experience Over-projecting due to little or no available data
Poor geographical fit Using only national trends to predict enrollment Extrapolating larger regions trends into smaller regions


Mistake #3: Ignoring other uses of conferral data and different sources of market data



Alternate methods and sources to consider
Ways to assess demand with available data Considerations
Consider using the broadest field trends, such as the 2-digit subject CIP codes, to see national trends related to the proposed program field. Is the field generally showing increasing student demand or declining student demand nationwide? Cannot be extrapolated to every region but can show whether student demand increases or decreases nationwide.
Analyze job postings to see which skills employers seek most frequently Employer demand can often create student demand
Assess programs already in the market, with a focus on program structure and marketing messages While it may be difficult to tell if these programs enroll successfully or not, seeing how many and what kind of certificate programs on the same subject matter exist can serve as a frame of reference and still guide effective decision-making (e.g., if other certificates leverage existing resources to lower start-up costs).
Industry trends from reliable third-party sources, databases, and journals may be used as a “pressure test” against the imperfect data Resources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Harvard Business Review, and Bloomberg offer analyses based on statistical modeling and a deeper analytical focus on specific emerging fields.


The certificate market can be tricky to navigate given the limitations of conferral data. However, avoiding these three mistakes can better inform decision-making on certificate programming by countering risky assumptions. For further research on certificates-and case studies of successful certificate programs-explore our Executive Guide to Certificates.

Lauren Edmonds

Senior Director, Research Development

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