A More Unified Community College: Aligning Non-Credit and Credit Programs

Now is the time to create a more unified community college that aligns industry-focused non-credit programs to credit programs that lead to degrees.

Community colleges are an important provider of the skilled workforce essential to so many of America’s employers. However, college programs are not always structured in ways that best prepare students for the workforce. Most institutions offer non-credit workforce programs and credit-based programs that operate separately. Many employers primarily value the skills and competencies built within those programs and may not focus on the distinctions between these programs. Students value access, flexibility, and opportunity to reach their educational goals. While it may largely go unnoticed, the bifurcation across non-credit programs and credit programs is impacting both students and employers.

Despite operating within the same institution, distinctions between non-credit programs and credit programs in structure, educational approach, faculty, and student resources compound to make programs feel worlds apart. While there are reasons for the separation of programs and some distinctions are in fact beneficial, other differences are simply default or arbitrary. And so, the two systems often exist separately, causing potential content duplication, lack of communication, and missed opportunities to collaborate and build pathways. 

Students enrolled in these programs are particularly impacted. Students in non-credit programs do not often have a direct pathway to continue their education on the credit side toward a degree. They are unlikely to receive credit for the learning that occurred in their non-credit program and unlikely to have access to financial aid or other means of funding for their education. The student experience in non-credit workforce programs is inequitable to that of students in credit programs in terms of their access to services, visibility, and representation across the institution. 

Institutions must turn their attention to these inequities and disconnects. Now is the time to create a more unified community college that aligns industry-focused non-credit programs to credit programs that lead to degrees. The economic and health crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic heightens the urgency for such change. The needs of today’s students and workforce demand such change. To be clear, non-credit can cover a wide range of offerings, but the focus of alignment should be on workforce programs.

Education Strategy Group’s recent publication, A More Unified Community College: Strategies and Resources for Aligning Non-Credit and Credit Programs, offers research, tools, and a new framework for alignment. The framework is composed of five key tenets, all of which must be implemented to realize a more unified community college. This framework is based on research, evidence in the field, and conversations with institutional, system, and policy leaders. Framework tenets include:

  1. Treat all students as students. 
  2. Build clear pathways between non-credit and credit credentials. 
  3. Align departments and governance. 
  4. Make programs credit-worthy or credit-based. 
  5. Remove barriers to transition. 

For a full explanation of the new framework, examples of this work in the field, getting started guides for different stakeholders, and more, see ESG’s full suite of resources here

Creating pathways to align non-credit and credit programs opens the doors of opportunity to students, faculty, employers, and the regional economy. Now is the time for community colleges to effect this change.

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