National Study Profiles Noncredit Workforce Programs at Community Colleges

Early results of an ongoing national community college study paint a picture of  workforce programs at 127 colleges nationwide. The  sponsors encourage more colleges to participate to provide a more comprehensive view.

Some of the most exciting innovation in higher education is taking place at community colleges. This new thinking about workforce education will be more important than ever as the nation emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic and millions of Americans need fast, job-focused upskilling to get back to work. Yet, relatively little is known about the breadth and depth of community college workforce programs, especially noncredit offerings designed to meet industry needs.

Washington DC think tank and policy shop Opportunity America is partnering with Lumina Foundation and Wilder Research to understand the landscape of workforce programs, fielding a national study of community college workforce educators.  

Some 1,260 publicly funded two-year colleges were invited to participate in the study, which will remain open through February 1, 2021.

Education authorities in 14 states, eager to see results before their state legislatures convene in January, have encouraged colleges to meet an early deadline. The data in this article represent responses from 127 institutions that met the early deadline (see data note). These preliminary result–answers to a few of the survey’s most probing questions–offer an intriguing picture of community college workforce programs and relationships with employers.

What colleges reported about their noncredit job-focused programs is perhaps the most revelatory among the responses.

Noncredit enrollments

Data about noncredit offerings are less reliable than the information tracked and reported to the national Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) by community college credit divisions. But taken together, the 127 colleges in the early-responders sample reported that 28 percent of their 2019 enrollments were noncredit learners. Leaving out one state where only technical colleges responded, the noncredit share ranged from 13 percent to 51 percent. 

How much noncredit education is job-focused?

In 2019, 58 percent of community college noncredit students were enrolled in occupational programs, 16 percent in customized contract training for employers, and 42 percent in job-focused programs open to any qualified student.

What credentials do noncredit workforce students earn?

More than one-third – 36 percent – of noncredit students enrolled in workforce education programs earn industry certifications. Another 23 percent earn other third-party certifications, including government-issued certifications and licensure. Many earn more than one type of credential.

Who pays for noncredit workforce education?

State formula funding and grants cover the cost of just 16 percent of noncredit workforce programs. Military benefits, means-tested federal programs, and foundation funding pay for another 16 percent. The principal source of funding – 42 percent – is students’ out-of-pocket tuition. Employers pick up 18 percent of the cost.

How do colleges ensure the quality of noncredit workforce programs?

Community colleges use a variety of tools  to ensure the quality of their noncredit job-focused programs. The top two methods: 96 percent of institutions design programs based on labor market information (LMI) or employer input, and 91 percent offer courses that lead to  industry certification or licensure.

What percentage of community college employer partners offer work-based learning?

Employers collaborate with community colleges in a wide variety of ways, from offering occasional labor market advice to partnering actively to design and provide instruction. Early-responder colleges reported that on average 31 percent of employer partners provided internships, apprenticeships, cooperative education or other on-the-job work experience.

As of January 4, 31 percent of all 1,260 community and technical colleges invited to participate in the study had completed the questionnaire. But a significant number, many citing the Covid crisis, have requested more time, and the deadline has been extended to February 1.

For more information or to participate in the study, please visit

Tamar Jacoby is president of Opportunity America, a Washington DC-based nonprofit promoting economic mobility – work, skills, careers, ownership and entrepreneurship for poor and working Americans.

Data Note: These data may or may not be representative, due to the sample size and because of differences in terminology from state to state that can make it difficult to generalize.

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline