TOP Code Alignment Project and Impacts on Local Coding

ASCCC Curriculum Committee Chair

If you have ever worked with Taxonomy of Program (TOP) codes before, you likely encountered frustration, either due to a lack of sufficient details about which programs would be appropriate to the code, or because there was no code that really fit the program. To address these challenges, the TOP Code Alignment Project developed a process to work with local colleges to aid in the identification of appropriate codes. This process engages discipline faculty in the local review of TOP codes while improving accuracy in all statewide data tracking systems.

Prior to the TOP Code Alignment Project, how TOP codes were assigned, and how these code assignments informed Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes and Standard Occupational Code(s) (SOC), contributed to inconsistent reporting within the system. Typically, TOP code assignments for new degrees or certificates were performed by an individual close to the program and/or the curriculum process. This individual could be classified staff, discipline faculty, or an administrator. Once assigned, a different person might identify the CIP code to submit to the federal government for gainful employment, financial aid, and veterans’ programs. Additionally, a collection of SOCs would be identified to indicate the intended occupations for students completing the degree or certificate. To facilitate this process, CIP codes and the SOCs would be selected using crosswalks between TOP and CIP codes and again between CIP codes and the SOCs.

More recently, we have recognized that local processes have created inconsistencies in TOP code, CIP code and SOC designations across the community college system. When the new version of Launchboard was released, California community colleges that worked to identify similar programs within the system found the task to be significantly more difficult than anticipated, largely due to the false assumption that the same TOP code and/or similar program titles would be more or less consistent. In fact, as the TOP code, CIP code and SOC systems do not always align, and as these codes are often selected by different individuals at the local level, different codes for similar programs within the community college system are often assigned.

The resulting TOP Code Alignment Project brought together representatives from ASCCC, WestEd, and the Centers of Excellence to develop a process for examining the coding of Career Technical Education (CTE) degrees and certificates. When the TOP Code Alignment Project started, there were suggestions that a group should be convened to determine the “best” codes for programs and that those codes would make it easier to compare similar programs. Instead, what was developed is a faculty-driven process to identify locally the best codes based on intended occupations. While the TOP codes might end up being the same for similar programs, the process does not guarantee this outcome. What it does guarantee is that faculty become engaged in choosing the codes, and that selected codes align with the intent of the program. 

How does this process work? For a college to participate in a TOP Code Alignment Project visit, the college must guarantee that discipline faculty and the college’s curriculum chair will be present. For one, the assignment of these codes is a matter of curriculum and therefore under faculty purview. Two, discipline faculty expertise is required to identify correctly codes which align with the content and purpose of the curriculum. Three, the participation of the curriculum chair ensures that local approval processes to change the codes are followed. In addition, once the process is completed, the curriculum chair is expected to serve in the pool of curriculum experts to assist other colleges undergoing review.

Prior to the visit, the process begins with the identification of the occupations that each degree or certificate prepares students to pursue. This information is forwarded to data experts at the Centers of Excellence who identify the possible corresponding SOC. Using a CIP to SOC crosswalk, a list of possible CIP codes is then complied. Finally, a revised version of the TOP to CIP crosswalk is used to develop a list of possible TOP codes. This information, along with the existing codes, is provided to the participating college in a code binder.

Once the code binder is complete and the required participants are registered, an in-person meeting is scheduled at the college to determine what codes should be used for each program. Visiting team members include a representative from WestEd, a facilitator who has previously participated in a code alignment visit, a coding expert from the Centers of Excellence, and a curriculum expert who is a current or former curriculum chair. The curriculum expert must either come from a college that has already undergone review or must be appointed by ASCCC.

During the visit, faculty from each program area work directly with the coding and curriculum experts to choose three to five SOCs, a CIP code, and a TOP code. During a typical visit, a college will include discipline faculty from three to five program areas to meet with the experts. While the experts may have suggestions, the choice of what codes to use is decided by local faculty.  At the end of the visit, the college is expected to submit the recoded degrees and certificates through its local curriculum approval process, and then to submit approved changes to the Chancellor’s Office Curriculum Inventory.

It is important that colleges continue to engage discipline faculty in the selection of codes associated with curriculum. Curriculum management systems like CurricUNET often put the codes on a screen accessible only to select individuals at the college, which can lead to the expectation that those individuals assign all of the codes for the college curriculum. Instead, even if a college’s curriculum technology hides the codes, colleges should develop a process where discipline faculty select curriculum codes. As many faculty are not experts in curriculum coding, colleges might consider forming a group of coding experts which could include the local curriculum chair, a CTE administrator, the curriculum specialist, and/or other locally-identified individuals to compile a list of possible codes to narrow the field of choices, similar to the code binder from the code alignment project. Once faculty become more familiar with the codes and how to assign them, determining codes will become just another part of the curriculum development process.

Whether your college chooses to participate in the code alignment project or not, engaging discipline faculty in the review of existing codes and the determination of new codes will lead to improved accuracy in all statewide data tracking systems. Participation in the code alignment project is a great way to get the review process started and to see how having faculty engaged in the coding process will benefit every program on campus. If you would like to find more information or to sign up for the code alignment project, visit <;.