Featured Work: Non-Credit and Credit Alignment Lab (NCAL): Building More Unified Community Colleges
From 2021 to 2023, Education Strategy Group (ESG) and the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) led the Non-credit and Credit Alignment Lab (NCAL), a two-year initiative to support 14 community college governance units (e.g., systems, districts, or colleges) in developing new or improved pathways between non-credit and credit programs.
The 14 participating sites were chosen through a competitive application process and identified on the map and list below:
- CUNY Community College Consortium
- Hudson County Community College
- Jackson College
- Lehigh Carbon Community College
- Louisiana Community and Technical College System
- Minnesota State Colleges and Universities
- North Iowa Area Community College
- North Shore Community College
- NorthWest Arkansas Community College
- Prince George’s Community College
- San Diego College of Continuing Education
- San Jacinto College
- University of Hawai’i Community Colleges
- Vance-Granville Community College
As millions have been displaced by the pandemic, many community colleges are struggling against drastic declines in for-credit enrollment, mostly among Native American, Black, and Hispanic populations. It is clear community colleges need new, innovative on-ramps to credit-bearing programs in order to counteract enrollment declines and ensure equitable access to economic mobility. While non-credit programming can provide those pathways for both students and institutions, many community colleges have erected a barrier between non-credit and credit programs, which makes student progression along these pathways much more difficult.
As a result, many students in non-credit programs are dead-ended, and colleges fail to successfully transition those students into credit-bearing programs. To achieve greater equity and develop more resilient and responsive systems—particularly amidst a global pandemic— community colleges must bridge the divide between non-credit and credit programs, which is the explicit aim of NCAL.
This initiative leveraged the framework for non-credit and credit alignment presented in ESG’s guide, A More Unified Community College, to inform the design of a community of practice and set of technical assistance provisions. In doing so, ACCT and ESG hope to use findings from this initiative to build the case among community colleges that non-credit and credit alignment is critical for both students and institutions’ bottom lines.
NCAL had two major objectives. The first objective was to help participating colleges get full implementation of one and partial implementation of another high-quality pathway between non-credit and credit programs. Based on the framework developed by ESG, high-quality pathways were defined as those that:
- Treat non-credit students as equal to credit students;
- Provide automatic or semi-automatic credit determination for non-credit learning experiences;
- Promote the next step on the pathway through clear communication and advising;
- Align operational foundations as demonstrated through joint leadership, shared data systems, and/or coordinated processes; and
- Remove barriers to transitions related to finances, financial aid, registration, and others.
The second objective was to provide a proof of concept to the higher education field that these criteria for a high-quality pathway demonstrably increase the number of students progressing between non-credit and credit programs.
To achieve these objectives, the participating systems, districts, and colleges had access to meaningful spaces to learn and receive support from their peers and national experts. As part of this initiative, community colleges collectively diagnosed current efforts underway to align programs, set a vision, build the case among college constituencies, and receive accountability from their peers to implement. ACCT and ESG provided extensive technical assistance to support colleges throughout the initiative, which included:
- Self-assessment survey distribution and analysis;
- Institutional convenings for dedicated team time;
- Presentations on best practice examples from leading institutions;
- Accountability partners;
- Goal setting and action planning;
- Student focus group research;
- Establishment of common language and shared understanding for alignment; and
- Project management and general advice
Achieving recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will require community college leaders to re-examine non-credit and credit programs and their alignment with one another. Through NCAL, ACCT and ESG aimed to build a collective movement that underscores the importance of non-credit and credit alignment and its impact on racially marginalized learners and low-income students, as well as enrollment levels. This work extends beyond the articulation of non-credit coursework into credit-bearing credentials and calls upon the field to treat all students as students, regardless of institutional status. Our collective effort—alongside 14 community colleges—is the starting point to reimagine how we deliver postsecondary education and inform the variety of options students have to reach their full potential.