Credit and noncredit programs need to be aligned

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Community colleges should better align their noncredit workforce training with their credit programs aimed at transfer students, the Education Strategy Group (ESG) recommends.

Having two separate tracks “has resulted in a bifurcated institutional structure that does not equitably serve and prepare all students for workforce opportunities and career advancement,” states a new report by ESG.

“This division is felt particularly acutely now, as many workers displaced by the pandemic seek non-degree training opportunities to reskill and get back to work,” ESG says.

The report offers strategies and resources to help colleges facilitate alignment.

An inequitable system

Despite operating within the same institution, distinctions between noncredit and credit programs in structure, educational approach, faculty and student resources “compound to make programs feel worlds apart,” ESG says. While there are reasons for the separation of programs and some distinctions are beneficial, other differences are arbitrary.

Consequently, the two systems often exist separately, causing potential content duplication, lack of communication and missed opportunities to collaborate and build pathways.

Students in noncredit programs often do not have a direct pathway to continue their education on the credit side toward a degree, the report says. They are unlikely to receive credit for the learning that occurred in their noncredit program or to have access to financial aid.

This problem is particularly significant given that students of color comprise a higher percentage of students enrolled in noncredit offerings than in credit programs, the report notes.

Strategies for change

ESG provides a framework for colleges that want to align industry-focused noncredit programs with credit programs that lead to degrees. The framework includes these key tenets for change:

  • Treat all students as students. Colleges should address the structural inequities that give an advantage to students in credit programs.
  • Build clear pathways between noncredit and credit credentials. No program should be an educational dead-end.
  • Align departments and governance. Consider organizing relevant noncredit and credit programs into the same department or establishing joint leadership.
  • Make programs credit-worthy or credit-based. Ensure that learning in industry-focused noncredit programs counts for credit through such bridge tools as credit matrices, articulation agreements or equivalency agreements.
  • Remove barriers to transition. Reduce the numbers of forms and processes required to transition. Provide navigational assistance and similar course schedules across programs.

Merging departments

No single institution or system has achieved full alignment, the report says, but several colleges have moved toward greater alignment.

One of the case studies in the report describes how Harford Community College in Maryland began this effort by merging health programs across noncredit and credit departments.

The college then worked on aligning noncredit and credit programs in its division of community education, business and applied technology. Electrical apprentices can now earn 21 credits toward a professional services degree.

As faculty in noncredit programs at Harford began teaching courses with a credit component, faculty in degree programs served as mentors for the courses to foster understanding and collaboration. The college now plans to expand alignment to other programs, as well as to advising, registration and student services.

The Austin Community College District in Texas began its alignment work with budgeting and staffing. The college transferred the manager of the noncredit program into the role of chair for manufacturing and was given responsibility for overseeing opportunities for alignment.

Since the college’s data showed that few students historically transitioned from noncredit to credit programs, the college focused on facilitating the transition. It designed customized rapid re-employment workforce programs that articulate into earn-and-learn credit programs with the same employers.

Eliminating silos

Last year, when the Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) brought together noncredit and credit programs into a single unit at the system office, it was supposed to be a temporary move to cover an open staff position.

However, the leadership quickly saw the benefit of the integrated unit, made the merger permanent and began to expand efforts to remove the structural divide. A new education and training department was created to eliminate silos and duplication and improve efficiency.

LCTCS expanded the role of the manager of health programs to cover all noncredit, credit and adult education programs in healthcare. The education and training department’s future plans call for creating a single admissions application.

“Academic programs have flexibility to learn from workforce programs, and workforce programs have structure to learn from academics. The answer is somewhere in the middle,” said René Cintrón, chief education and training officer for LCTCS and a member of the expert work that advised ESG on the study.

LCTCS infused transparency in its work to spur collaboration, as “sharing doesn’t happen when everyone is in their own corner,” Cintrón said.

Economic recovery

“We have a responsibility to foster environments where students from each walk of life are successful from pre-application to post-graduation,” said work group member Jim Jacobs, president emeritus of Macomb Community College in Michigan.

“Community colleges are positioned to be engines of economic recovery and help people get back to work in a post-pandemic economy, but the division between noncredit and credit programs threatens to do a serious disservice to both students seeking training and employers seeking qualified new hires,” noted ESG President Matt Gandal.

“Intentional and strategic alignment of the noncredit and credit sides of the house is the only way to ensure equitable student opportunity and consistent, high-quality outcomes,” Gandal said. “This was true before the pandemic struck, and the need for integration is even more urgent now.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.