Certificate Programs

The SJSU Academic Senate recently enacted University Policy S13-10 - Review and Approval Process for Academic Certificate Programs.  

The following discusses issues that one should ponder if considering submitting a proposal for a certificate program. It also will guide the author through the proposal construction and approval processes. Also see the Certificate Program Proposal template and Certificate Proposal Form.


 Certificate programs can fulfill a marketing and recruitment role for degree programs by allowing potential students to sample course offerings without a full commitment. The coursework, if approved by the school/department, can be transferred into a degree program at a later time either in full (with certificate program matriculation) or partially (with enrollment in the certificate classes through Open University). There is an attraction for students to demonstrate that they have a unique and specialized skill set that sets them apart from others in the same degree program. The certification provides both a reward and documentation of credentials that can be effective in self-promotion for employment. Many employers are impressed by possession of specific knowledge and skills more so than the general degree. And of course, the certificate program is a revenue-generating mechanism when the courses are taken through special session or through Open University.

More specialized applications of the certificate can be found. Packaging a set of prerequisite classes for the master's degree could be done to neatly provide an avenue into the master's for students with bachelor's degrees in other fields. At the other end of the master's spectrum, post-master's courses can be offered to allow for continuing education and certification exam preparation. Whereas it has not yet been devised on our campus or elsewhere to our knowledge, it is theoretically feasible to divide the master's degree into segments so that students could take the entire master's program via a set of "stackable" certificate programs, providing a periodic reward system and compensation for partial completion of the master's degree.

Upside vs Downside

The upside to offering a certificate program is that the objectives described above may be accomplished. The downside is minimal. Time and effort must be spent for the program to be designed, proposed in writing, and reviewed and approved. A director must be assigned to run the program, amounting to admitting (if matriculation is desired) and advising students as well as interacting with GAPE (for advanced programs) or the Registrar’s Office (for basic programs) in the processing of the student paperwork at the end of the program. Additional tasks might involve advertising and promoting the program. Whether the program will be successful is governed by the state of the market, whether the market is reached, and by the perceived quality of the product. If it fails, there is no substantial loss.

 Special vs Regular Session

The choice of session in which to hold the program is crucial. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The chief advantages to the university of a special session program are financial and, when appropriate, the lack of FTES generation. The unit cost to students is set at a level that generates self support. The courses can be taught by lecturers or by tenured and tenure-track faculty through overload. While the self-support constraint does produce income if the number of enrollees is substantial, it can also cause the demise of the program if the number is low. Regular session programs, while generating only “normal” tuition, enjoy a smaller financial boost through Open University enrollments of non-matriculated students. However, students already in bachelor’s or master’s programs can take the classes and earn certificates; therefore, so-called double dipping is permitted (where courses can be used for dual purposes), and classes are more easily filled to sustain the program. For special session programs, students matriculated in regular session degree programs cannot cross over into special session classes. If the classes are duplicates of degree-program classes, they must be repeated at a different time, as students of the two sessions cannot share a classroom. A regular session student would have to wait until graduation from a degree program before taking special session classes or pay both regular and special session fees.

To reiterate, programs in special session, such as the master’s program in Library and Information Science and MBA programs that offer special session certificates, have only to gain by allowing additional (certificate program) students into their already-proffered courses. But bachelor’s or master’s programs in regular sessions that offer special session certificates may have a difficult time filling classes enough to satisfy the self-support requirement.  

University Approval

Certificate programs exist on campus that predate the new university policy and have, therefore, neither been reviewed nor approved. These programs can continue on an unofficial basis, although they will not appear in the university catalog. The benefits to seeking official status for these programs are, however, not trivial. Benefits to the student are the receipt of an official certificate and a designation of completion of the program on the transcript. For the program, the benefits for advanced programs are GAPE screening of applications, which will occur with formal application to the certificate program through CSU Mentor. Thus certification of the bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, calculation of the bachelor’s degree GPA or that of the last 60 units earned (if desired by the program), authentication of transcripts, analysis of foreign transcripts, receipt of all documents and electronic conveyance of those documents to the department, and determination of English-proficiency exam passage are services provided by GAPE. These services occur only with advanced programs, as matriculation into basic programs is not permitted. Students taking a basic program course must already be matriculated in degree programs or take courses through Open University.

If a certificate program is taken via Open University, all of the units can be transferred into a bachelor’s degree program from a basic certificate. For an advanced program, 30% of the total number of units in a master’s program can be transferred into it from a certificate program if the student later matriculates into a master’s program. But if the student instead matriculates into the certificate program by the formal admission process, all units of the certificate program are transferable (with graduate advisor consent) into a master’s program. If the student finishes either the basic or advanced certificate program either through Open University or as a matriculated student, the completion of the program will be noted on the official transcript and an official university paper certificate will be issued by the Registrar’s Office.

To have a certificate program approved requires a proposal and some accessory items. The proposal should contain the following information:

  • Name of the program. The name specified will become the official name of the certificate program appearing in the university catalog, CSU Mentor, and the student transcript. Be sure there is no substantial overlap in name or content with other programs on campus.
  • Advanced or basic program
  • If it contains undergraduate classes, it is basic. Obtain the document, “Basic Certificate Program Proposal Guidelines” from the Office of Undergraduate Studies.
  • If it is advanced, is it post-baccalaureate or post-master’s? Follow the present guidelines for the proposal.
  • Governing unit of the program (department, school, college, or multidisciplinary)
  • Director (or advisor) of the program
  • Special or regular session program
  • Total number of units (9 minimum)
  • Statement of purpose (intended market, rationale, and justification for the program, program need, which may or may not include surveys, letters of support, and newsletters or articles indicating changes in industry or discipline standards, benefit to community and to students, initial and projected interest in the program, and summary of the market analysis if a special session program)
  • Admissions requirements if stricter than those of the university for its bachelor’s or master’s programs (e.g., higher than a 2.5 GPA in the bachelor’s degree for an advanced program)
  • A listing of the courses, including number, title, no. of units, prerequisites if any, descriptions, and whether required or elective. If part of a basic program, specify grading options and rules concerning matriculation of students in the program. If the program includes classes outside of the home department, letters of support should be attached from the departments offering those classes.
  • Greensheets for all classes
  • Required certificate GPA or other requirements if higher than that required for the bachelor’s or master’s degrees, e.g., a minimum requirement of “B” grades in all courses of an advanced program. Note that with additional requirements, there must also be notification in the university catalog and on the department website of the requirements, notification by letter when a student fails to achieve the minimum standard and is thus on administrative-academic probation in the certificate program, and notification by letter when a student ultimately fails the program and cannot resume it (administrative-academic disqualification). Copies of these letters should also be sent to the Associate Dean of either Undergraduate Studies or Graduate Studies & Research as well as to the Registrar. Note also that a minimum GPA of 2.0 must be achieved to be awarded the certificate for basic programs. For advanced programs, only 3 units of “C” grade work count and only 3 units can be repeated; a 3.0 GPA is minimally required.
  • Transfer policy: number of units of the certificate program (and specific classes if some are not transferable) that can be transferred into a master’s program in the field if the student later matriculates into one. Note that 30% of the total number of units in a master’s program can be transferred from all sources, including Open University courses taken in certificate programs, if approved by the graduate advisor. All units in a certificate program into which the student has matriculated can be transferred with program permission. All of the units in basic certificate programs can be transferred (with program advisor consent) into a current or future bachelor’s degree program.
  • Staffing plan, if the program contains classes not taught as part of the normal bachelor’s or master’s program, e.g, if in special session when the normal degree program is in regular session, or if there are unique classes not included in the degree program.
  • A statement that offering the certificate program will not have an adverse effect on existing bachelor’s or master’s programs.
  • Assessment plan, including meaningful and measurable certificate (program)-level student learning objectives mapped to the certificate courses in which they will be fulfilled and assessed.
  • Catalog copy, including the program director or advisor, a brief description of the program, the transfer rules, any special rules of admission or performance, whether through regular or special session and therefore whether students in regular session degree programs can earn them simultaneously, and a template that shows all classes required and their units.
  • SJSU College Dean Curricular Proposal Approval Form, signed by department chair or school director and college dean or representative, and stipulating approval by the college curriculum committee. The library liaison also signs the form to indicate that library resources are adequate for the program to be successful. If there is any question about the adequacy of existing library resources, one should consult the library liaison early in the process.
  • Optionally, letters of support from the college dean and from the department chair or school director (specifically addressing staffing issues) can be attached.


The College of International & Extended Services (CIES) has made available a comprehensive description of the process for applying for university sanction of basic (undergraduate level) and advanced (post-baccalaureate) certificate programs through special session at www.sjsu.edu/specialsession/new-programs/ under University Policy S13-10 Policy Recommendation, Review, and Approval Process for Academic Certificate Programs [pdf].

If feedback on an advanced proposal is desired, it can be sent to the Associate Dean of GS&R either at the start of the process or before submission to the chair of the GS&R Committee.

In brief, the process is as follows.

  • New courses approved through normal university mechanisms
  • For special session programs, contact CIES early in the process as it requires market and financial analysis
  • If the chairs do not approve the program, they can return the proposal to the author for revision
  • If they determine that aspects of the program necessitate evaluation by the whole committee, they can send it through their committee for review
  • Departmental/school curriculum committee, if applicable
  • College curriculum committee
  • Chair of Undergraduate Studies Committee (if basic program) or of Graduate Studies & Research (if advanced program).
  • If approved by the chair of either the UGS or GS&R Committees, the proposal is routed through the AVPs of UGS or GS&R to the Provost for final approval

To be entered into the university catalog, proposals must be approved by December 20 of the previous year. Only under these circumstances can the programs appear in CSU Mentor for that academic year. However, programs approved by the Provost can immediately be offered through Open University.