Automatic Awarding of Degrees and Certificates – Considerations for Local Senates

Area C Representative, Educational Policies Committee Chair
Area D Representative, Transfer, Articulation and Student Services Committee Chair,

With the current state and national focus on student completion, colleges are exploring ways to increase the number of degrees and certificates awarded annually to students in order to demonstrate that their students are completing their educational goals.  While our students may have other goals besides earning a degree or certificate, the reality is that policy makers and legislators have emphasized the importance of students earning degrees and certificates.  Since policy makers influence legislators, and because legislators hold the purse strings, colleges need to demonstrate to the public that their students are earning degrees and certificate in a timely manner.

With the advent of degree audit software, one potentially attractive method for increasing degree and certificate completion is to use the software to audit the coursework that students have completed, and automatically award degrees and certificates if they have completed the required coursework.

At the Fall 2012 Plenary Session, the Academic Senate adopted Resolution 13.01 F12, Automatic Awarding of Earned Degrees or Certificates:

Resolved, That the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges investigate the positive and negative impacts of automatically awarding earned degrees or certificates, including the methods through which such a practice could be facilitated, and report the results of this research by Fall 2014.

In response to this resolution, a survey was distributed to the field in Spring 2014 to determine what colleges were doing with regard to automatic awarding of degrees.  The Senate received 39 responses to the survey, of which only three colleges (7.7%) indicated that their colleges automatically awarded degrees or certificates to their students.  One college responded that it notifies students that they will be awarded the degree if they meet specific requirements (completed at least 60 units, have an education plan on file, have a valid application on file to verify recent attendance), but the student has the right to opt out of the award; however, the college discontinued this process in Fall 2013 due to SB 1456 (Lowenthal, 2012) implementation.  Another college had a less automatic process: it required the students to “apply for a degree and most certificates.”  Furthermore, this college responded that “certificates with an identified capstone course are auto awarded if the student passes the capstone course with a C grade or higher.”

Even though only three colleges responded that they have some form of a process for automatic awarding of degrees and certificates, nearly half of the respondents (46.9%) replied that their colleges have considered automatically awarding degrees or certificates but decided against such a process. The reasons for this decision included technology limitations, staffing limitations, effect on eligibility for Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS), and a simple lack of institutional priority. However, the reason most frequently cited for not implementing automatic awarding of degrees and certificates was the potential impact on eligibility for student financial aid.  Such concerns are indeed legitimate and need to be addressed if a college is considering implementing automatic awarding of degrees and certificates. Above all else, the most important consideration regarding automatic awarding of degrees and certificates must be what is best for students.

The benefits of automatically awarding degrees and certificates seem obvious.  Clearly, it would be convenient for the students because they would not need to complete graduation petitions.  Colleges would also benefit because more completions would be reflected in their Scorecard data.  Furthermore, students would leave the college with a degree or certificate in hand, which may increase employment and earnings potential.  In addition, given that many of our students are the first in their families to attend college, earning an associates degree is a source of pride and accomplishment, not only for the students but also for their families.  Any faculty member who has attended college graduation ceremonies has observed this first hand. 

However, completing a program of study, particularly an associates degree, affects a student’s status at the college in several ways, and automatically awarding degrees may result in unintended consequences that harm students.  In particular, completion of a degree affects financial aid eligibility, registration priority, and the ability to obtain a different degree and may affect transfer to a four-year institution.

In its Federal Student Aid Handbook[1], the U.S. Department of Education details the eligibility requirements students must meet to receive federal student aid.  The basic requirement is that the student must be enrolled as a regular student in an eligible program.  The handbook defines a regular student as “someone who is enrolled or accepted for enrollment in an eligible institution for the purpose of obtaining a degree or certificate offered by the school.”  In order to maintain eligibility for federal student aid, the student must maintain minimum scholarship standards as required by the institution, such as meeting minimum grade point average requirements and making satisfactory progress towards the degree or certificate.  Students who receive federal student aid are also limited in the number of units they can attempt (not complete).  This limit, known as the 150% Rule, is 150% of the number of units required to complete the degree or certificate.   For example, if a student states that his or her educational goal is to earn an Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT), which by Education Code is 60 units, then that student can attempt up to 90 units of coursework to complete that degree and maintain his or her federal student aid eligibility. Finally, and most importantly, eligibility for receiving federal student aid ends once the student earns an associate degree or certificate.  This limit also applies if a student states that his or her goal is a credit certificate. However, students who complete a certificate program may continue their studies and pursue an associate degree.  In that case, students will retain their eligibility for federal student aid until they earn the associate degree or reach the 150% attempted units limit.  Once a student earns an associate degree, the loss of eligibility is final unless the student transfers to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree or appeals the loss of eligibility and regains it. 

Consider the example of a student pursuing the ADT in Physics, which by law is a 60-unit degree.  However, the Transfer Model Curriculum (TMC) template also recommends that students should take additional coursework that could not be included in the degree due to the 60-unit requirement, such as chemistry and differential equations, prior to transfer in order to be prepared for upper division study in the major. 

Normally, that student would be allowed to attempt up to 90 units while maintaining financial aid eligibility.  However, if that student is automatically awarded the degree before he or she takes the additional coursework recommended in the Physics TMC template, the student will have lost his or her federal student aid eligibility and will have to pay the cost of taking those additional courses at the community college out of pocket. Furthermore, because that student has completed the degree, he or she may lose registration priority, which may make completing the additional recommended coursework prior to transfer difficult. 

If a college automatically awards a student any degree that can be attained by combining a collection of eligible courses, then a student may earn a degree that he or she did not intend or want to earn.  Many of our students change their minds multiple times about their majors before deciding on a major.  After declaring a major, some students may have actually completed enough coursework to qualify for a different degree without even realizing it.  If degrees are awarded automatically, then students may be awarded degrees they did not seek to earn before completing their intended degrees. 

A student might also complete the requirements for a local (non-ADT) degree while intending to earn an ADT and transfer to the CSU.  An example might again be the student who intends to earn the ADT in Physics. The student could complete enough coursework to earn a local area of emphasis such as in the humanities or fine arts and be awarded that degree before he or she has completed the requirements for the ADT in Physics.  That student will not only lose financial aid eligibility and registration priority, but he or she will also lose the transfer admission priority to the CSU afforded to students who complete the ADT.  Furthermore, unless the local board policies state otherwise, that student will may not be able to complete the ADT in Physics he or she intended to complete because of being awarded the other degree.

Clearly, a college or district considering implementing an automatic award process needs to have thoughtful dialog about the impacts on students.  Given that this discussion would clearly include considerations about degree and certificate requirements and student success policies, both of which are within the academic senate’s purview under Title 5 §53200 (c), local senates need to be actively engaged in these discussions, and collegial consultation must take place before policies and procedures are adopted.  As part of any automatic award process, the degree or certificate awarded should be the student’s identified educational goal, as stated in his or her educational plan and financial aid application.  Additionally, the student should be notified well in advance of being awarded a given degree certificate that it will be awarded, and the student should be given the opportunity to meet with a counselor to review his or her options, which must include the option to decline being awarded that degree or certificate. The benefits of automatically awarding degrees and certificates to students may seem clear, but local senates must carefully consider all of the potential beneficial and adverse impacts on their students before recommending the implementation of a process for automatically awarding degrees and certificates at their institutions. 

[1] The 2014-2015 Federal Student Aid Handbook is found at