Building Pathways Between Non-Credit and Credit Programs: Where to Begin?

Friday, October 16, 2020
Annie Phillips

Last week, we released A More Unified Community College: Strategies and Resources to Align Non-Credit and Credit Programs, a suite of resources intended to help community colleges bring their non-credit and credit offerings into greater alignment for more equitable student experiences. The need for alignment and, for that matter, clear pathways to opportunity, is particularly urgent as millions of workers displaced by the pandemic seek additional training, skills, and credentials to help them get back to work quickly. 

Despite the clear need, the process of aligning non-credit and credit programs can be daunting. Because each institution has its own unique culture and context, there is not one singular way to embark on implementing the new framework for alignment outlined in the report. To help colleges and systems determine the optimal way to begin the process, we’ve outlined four different potential starting points, each illustrated by a real-world case study and other examples from the field. 

Option One: Removing the Structural Divide

Entrenched structural barriers between non-credit and credit programs keep the two sides of the house operating separately. One way to begin the alignment process is to create a new or merged division that encompasses both non-credit and credit departments. This newly-merged division can facilitate pathway development and student progression between non-credit certificate and degree programs, acting as one unit with seamless coordination, communication, and collaboration. This structure enables institutions to focus on the policies, procedures, systems, software, job descriptions, administrative functions, and supporting infrastructure required to align non-credit and credit departments. 

In 2018, Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) created a new division called Teaching, Learning, and Student Success, which brought together credit programs, non-credit programs, and student services. The division originated through the president’s vision to prioritize competitiveness and agility in the marketplace over historical institutional structures. These efforts built upon the college’s participation in guided pathways, a national initiative to create program pathways mapped to careers and to support student progression on those pathways. As a result, PGCC has been able to significantly reduce duplication in programs offered across non-credit and credit, and early evidence shows an uptick in student demand for certain credit-bearing courses. Read the full case study to learn more about PGCC’s efforts, as well as how other institutions have approached removing structural barriers. 

Option Two: Developing Bridge Tools to Award Credit

For many institutions, aligning non-credit and credit programs starts with the development of policies and practices that recognize and award credit for quality learning that occurs in non-credit programs. In this approach, bridge tools—including equivalency agreements, articulation agreements, competency-based education (CBE), credit by exam or other prior learning assessment, or credit matrices— are key to achieving alignment. Non-credit and credit departments often retain their organizational distinctions, but the development of such tools can help make the transition process between non-credit and credit programs, as well as the credit awarding process, as automatic as possible, without placing additional requirements on students. 

In response to funded legislation in Utah requiring affordable and flexible options for students, the School of Applied Technology and Technical Studies (SATTS) at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) moved 20 non-credit clock-hour programs to a competency based education (CBE) model. As part of this effort, SATTS and SLCC made the development of pathways to credit programs a priority. With leadership from the president of the college, faculty began collaborating to develop internal equivalency agreements to grant credit for program competencies, rather than courses. In this scenario, a student simply has to complete a non-credit program and demonstrate competency in order to earn credit for the entirety of the program when they transition. This approach takes the onus of earning credit off the student by making the process for earning credit as automatic as possible. Learn more about SLCC’s process and other examples from the field in the full case study

Option Three: Making Industry-Focused Programs Credit-Based

By making the majority of industry-focused non-credit programs credit-bearing and automatically counting them toward an associate’s degree, institutions can ensure that students have options to continue their education down the road. Colleges can facilitate this alignment by following the accreditation process and aligning curriculum, learning objectives, and outcomes between non-credit industry-focused programs and degree programs. To ensure colleges – and particularly workforce-oriented programs – can maintain industry responsiveness, it’s important to engage administrative offices like the registrar and financial aid early on in the process to seek accreditation. 

When the technical colleges in Kentucky merged with the community college system to become the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) in 1997, new leadership prioritized developing a process to award credit for non-credit programs. The goal was to award credit for learning where it occurred and provide long-term value for learning via a transcript, while still maintaining flexibility in non-credit training. Making non-credit industry-aligned programs credit bearing would also better align with state funding, which flowed more directly into credit-based programs. To do so, the system assigned a team of faculty and staff from non-credit and credit programs to develop a common language definition and process guide to manage the transition to credit programming. Faculty members in credit programs who taught non-credit courses helped facilitate the change, as these faculty knew the content and quality of workforce offerings were the same as academic programs, simply taught in a different format. Strong system coordination and a standardized curriculum across the system also facilitated the transition to credit offerings. Read more about KCTCS’ approach in the full case study

Option Four: Reorienting for Demand-Driven Pathways

Another approach for embarking on the alignment process is to design new aligned pathways for current and emerging industry demand. Some structural silos may remain, but intentionally building pathways from non-credit programs into new programs and credential offerings establishes the precedent of alignment moving forward. External drivers, including labor market data and partnerships rather than internal organization, determine the pathways.

In 2011, Monroe Community College (MCC) created the Economic and Workforce Development Center (EWDC) to reach more students across the region, better prepare students for employment, and create pathways toward degrees. The new division brought together corporate training, academic CTE, and non-credit and credit offerings. The EWDC took a highly proactive approach to employer engagement, focusing on account management and strong employer relationships. A newly-developed data department is used to track 108 occupations, convene large swaths of industry stakeholders to inform competency and program development, and provide targeted data for student and employer use. The EWDC’s goal is to be highly responsive to industry demand while still providing pathways to degrees. Learn more about MCC’s efforts and additional examples of this approach to alignment in the full case study