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Postbaccalaureate and Graduate Certificate Advising

Postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates* have become valuable tools for enhancing the skills and knowledge of individuals who have completed a baccalaureate degree and entered the workforce, but may not have the time, financial resources or need for a master’s degree. Penn State currently offers over 75 postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates across a wide variety of disciplines, both in residence and online. While the Graduate School provides oversight of postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates to certify they are compliant with relevant policies, the content and quality of certificates as defined by their underlying course requirements are the responsibility of the offering college.

Postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates typically require coursework totaling 9 to 15 credits, but credit requirements can be much greater and thus represent a significant investment of time, energy and financial resources by the student. In addition, many postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates are recruitment opportunities for related master’s degree programs, and students completing the certificate who later apply and are admitted into the respective degree program must understand how the certificate courses may or may not integrate into the degree program. To ensure that students pursuing or considering pursuing a Penn State postbaccalaureate or graduate certificate derive the most benefit from their experience and investment, it is imperative that colleges provide timely, knowledgeable and effective student advising. Best practices for advising postbaccalaureate and graduate certificate students include the following:

  1. The advisor should understand the goals of the student and the goals of the certificate program to be certain they are aligned. A good match between the student’s goals and the certificate program’s goals increases the value of the certificate to the student; conversely, a mismatch in goals is a waste of precious time and money for the student, and diminishes that student’s opinion of Penn State, which is often shared with a wider audience and can have a reputational impact.  For certificates with electives, informed course selections ensure that the student will maximize the benefit of undertaking the certificate.
  2. The advisor should be certain that the student understands the basic enrollment rules of the Graduate School. Students enrolled in postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates are typically adult learners with full time employment and, frequently, families. The significant responsibilities of many adult learners, combined with their course load, may sometimes compromise their attention to academic policies and procedures. Graduate Council policies regarding unresolved DF grades automatically converting to an F, and a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA to be in good academic standing and receive the certificate, are the two most commonly misunderstood policies. Ensuring that students understand the important rules as they begin their studies minimizes the likelihood of significant problems later in the course of the student’s certificate program.
  3. The advisor should be certain that the student understands critical certificate requirements. Postbaccalaureate and graduate certificate students may not be aware of the academic and procedural requirements of the particular certificate in which they are enrolled. These may include any course prerequisites, required course sequencing, the schedule by which certificate courses are offered, etc., all of which may impact how long it will take to complete the certificate.  In cases where a certificate may include a requirement or deliverable not associated with a specific course registration, access to a knowledgeable advisor becomes even more important. Quality advising ensures that the student completes the certificate as seamlessly and in as short a period of time as practical.
  4. The advisor should be certain that the student understands the importance of timely communication, should he/she encounter problems. Despite everyone’s best intentions, problems may arise.  Small problems frequently become large problems (and sometimes insurmountable problems) when left unattended (e.g., DF grades that have automatically converted to an F are virtually impossible to change after the time limit for resolution has expired and the DF has converted to an F on the transcript). Programs should develop processes to ensure that problems are recognized and flagged as early as possible, and advisors should contact the student (even if the student does not initiate contact) to address the issues.

The downstream impact of inadequate student advising is frequently consequential: students fail to complete the certificate, or to even complete individual courses, or are left with poor grades on their permanent transcript. In such situations, the cost to the student in terms of time, frustration/stress and money is frequently accompanied by the student’s sense that Penn State failed to provide adequate support to them, and this ultimately damages our reputation.

Alternatively, when students are not appropriately advised or not advised in a timely manner and the program appeals for exceptions to academic standards and policies as a regular practice, the integrity of those standards and policies are undermined and concerns are raised regarding appropriate oversight of the certificate program.  

Given the significant stakes to both the student personally (time, effort, money) as well as to Penn State and the college offering the certificate (reputation), it is clear that advising postbaccalaureate and graduate certificate students should be done by informed members of the Penn State Graduate Faculty who are intimately familiar with relevant Graduate Council and Graduate School policies. Given that the overwhelming majority of postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates are related to graduate degree programs, it is highly recommended that the person serving as advisor to postbaccalaureate and graduate certificate students be a member of the Graduate Faculty of the relevant program, and possess an excellent working knowledge of the goals and choices within the certificate program. 

Following these guidelines will maximize the likelihood of a successful outcome for our postbaccalaureate and graduate certificate students, for the college and for Penn State.

Last Updated: 5/16/16

*A more complete rational and formal definitions of postbaccalaureate and graduate certificates, as well as guidelines for their development and approval, can be found in Postbaccalaureate Credit Certificate Programs.

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