Students in Non-Credit Programs Want Degrees… And Three Other Things They’d Like You To Know

Monday, January 30, 2023
Kanler Cumbass

Kelly Grimmer is a mother and current student at North Shore Community College (NSCC) outside of Boston, MA. Kelly’s route to the classroom has not been particularly easy. As a young adult, when she first attempted to enroll in postsecondary education at a different institution, Kelly encountered several roadblocks that inhibited her from successfully registering for coursework. Now, at the age of 38, Kelly finds herself in an entirely different situation: successfully completing NSCC’s non-credit Community Health Worker and Recovery Coach certificate and continuing her education by enrolling in the institution’s Drug and Substance Abuse associate degree program.

This time, with support from faculty and staff at NSCC, Kelly’s desire to pursue additional education and training has been met with warm hands and a clear path forward. The student who started out eager to pursue non-credit workforce training is now excelling in credit coursework and working toward a degree.

Kelly is one of over 80 students enrolled in non-credit workforce training programs that Education Strategy Group (ESG) interviewed in the last year. We listened to students describe their trajectories in life and in postsecondary education, the bumps they encountered along the way, and their determination to do more than just make ends meet, finish their non-credit training, and land a good job.

A number of the learners we interviewed expressed a strong desire to pursue a degree after their non-credit training—but how would the field know this, much less support this desire among students? As it currently stands, postsecondary education—whether intentional or not—has long overlooked learners pursuing non-credit workforce training programs. These are often adult learners, students of color, and low-income individuals; an increasing number of whom are sharing, “I do have interest in pursuing credit coursework [and a degree],” as one learner succinctly put it. Too often, postsecondary leaders and policymakers default to the narrative that students pursuing non-credit training want to quickly upskill and get a job rather than pursue a degree. And while that may be true for some students, that assumption impedes practitioners from getting to know their learners, assessing their students’ needs, and helping them work toward short and long-term goals.

To fill this gap in the field, ESG joined our partners at the Association of Community College Trustees to launch the Non-Credit and Credit Alignment Lab (NCAL), a two-year initiative to support community colleges in developing new or improved pathways between non-credit and credit programs. Our first step in this work was to speak with students themselves—specifically those enrolled in non-credit programs—to identify the barriers they face in transitioning to credit coursework. Our interviews revealed that learners in non-credit programs clearly recognized a strong bifurcation between non-credit and credit. One learner went as far as to state, “They appear to be two separate systems,” but this reality did not stop students from desiring additional education. These learners view non-credit training as a starting point into postsecondary education and a signal they could be successful in the classroom:

“I think the [non-credit] program helped me a lot. I was kind of thinking about starting credit coursework beforehand, but then after I got that diploma in my hand, it really changed things around for me and that’s when I took, you know, a little bit of time to really think about it and then chose my path forward to continue into the degree.”

To improve non-credit and credit alignment and eliminate unnecessary silos between the two, learners offered three recommendations that warrant larger discussion in the field:

1. Support services and advising should be responsive to the needs of learners in non-credit programs. High-quality advising and wraparound support services were core components of the experience for students who have successfully navigated the transition from non-credit to credit. Moreover, access to critical campus resources such as the library, academic learning centers, mental health counseling, etc., was often cited as necessary for success, yet unavailable due to a learner’s status as being enrolled in non-credit.

“[My advisor] assisted in every possible way, and really bent over backwards on an individual basis to help people get into, you know, credit coursework. So, my advisor handled all of the administrative side of it and really supported me.”

“I know the [institution] library has a lot of resources, but I was unable to check anything out… And the librarian said, ‘If you want to check a book out, then you need to be a student, and a continuing education student is not a [institution] student.’”

These realities among students pursuing non-credit credentials signal that it is beneficial for postsecondary education leaders to scale advising practices and ensure that all students – regardless of their program – have access to campus and community resources that are critical for success (i.e., public benefits, transportation, childcare, career counseling, tutoring, streamlined registration, etc). As part of NCAL, Vance-Granville Community College recently hired an advisor to support students enrolled in non-credit programs. The advisor will be responsible for supporting students in and outside of the classroom, collecting and reporting student-level data for non-credit programs, and ensuring that more learners are successfully navigating the workforce or enrolling in credit coursework. Similarly, in an effort to ensure all students have access to campus resources, San Jacinto College began providing non-credit students with an ID and increased access to services on campus.

2. Faculty and instructors have a role to play in student success, too. Faculty and instructors are oftentimes the starting point for students seeking academic support or guidance. Our interviews with students overwhelmingly revealed that faculty teaching non-credit coursework play a promising role in shaping students’ academic and career trajectories.

“I heard about how to begin credit coursework from one of the professors. [Faculty name] was like ‘Hey, why aren’t you continuing your education?’ And she’s the one who helped me. I explained to her, you know, at the time, I had no interest in going back actually for credit classes. I was like, ‘I had a really bad experience when I tried to get back into college as an adult in a past time with a horrible admissions team at a different institution.’ So, I was like, ‘I don’t want to go back to school after that experience.’ And [professor name] actually helped me from the start – from enrollment to filling out financial aid, everything. So, she’s how I heard about [the degree program]. She said to me, ‘You can do this!’”

But faculty alone cannot support learners. Training for faculty and staff to support student transitions to credit coursework is needed. As students turn to faculty for support, close collaboration between academic affairs and student services is increasingly necessary. As part of their work through NCAL, North Shore Community College faculty and staff recently mapped the student journey to identify where students (e.g., credit, non-credit, English language learners, veterans, etc.) need additional support to be successful in the classroom. From registration to completion, North Shore investigated where additional financial, social or academic support might help learners achieve their goals. This work resulted in a series of intra-departmental work groups to address the pain points of learners in non-credit and credit. Strong collaboration between academic affairs and student services continues to be a vital part of warm student handoffs between departments at North Shore.

3. Connecting learners to student financial aid—especially grant aid—is critical for non-credit and credit transitions. It is no surprise that with the rising cost of postsecondary education, students fret about their ability to afford a degree. Students in non-credit desire more information about their ability to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and receive state and federal grant aid. Where grant aid did exist—making additional education and training more affordable—students felt encouraged to make the transition to credit coursework; yet, too often, students did not know where to begin to identify and navigate financial aid opportunities. Executive leadership and financial aid administrators have a responsibility to make the cumbersome financial aid process clear and easy to navigate for learners in non-credit programs.

“I’ve tried to get financial aid in the past, not at [institution], just that other college. It just seems like so much work to be honest. Like it gets frustrating to fill out all of the paperwork and everything. You know, I need someone that I can ask for help.”

“I do have interest in pursuing credit coursework. But like [student] is saying, it’s dependent upon financial aid, and what programs I can afford and potentially get grants for, such as Pell grants or anything like that…”

NorthWest Arkansas recently held a ‘career and transition fair’ for their learners in non-credit programs. Whether a student was choosing to enter the workforce or interested in pursuing a degree, the fair provided ample resources —from career development tools to guidance on the registration and financial aid process for credit programs—to ensure learners’ are successful in their next steps. This event engaged employers and other community leaders to promote the value of continued education and training.

To facilitate individual and communal economic mobility, stronger ties between non-credit and credit offerings are needed on community college campuses. This includes strengthening advising and support services, cross-training faculty and staff, and ensuring students can easily access information on aid. ESG’s A More Unified Community College framework provides concrete recommendations to get you started on this important work, which encourages state and institutional leaders to prioritize getting to know their learners in non-credit.

Collectively, student voice continues to drive the Non-Credit and Credit Alignment Lab and is a tool that can inform leaders of learners’ specific needs and catalyze the change necessary to meet the evolving demands of our workforce. During a period of enrollment decline and rising cost of postsecondary education, centering learners’ voices can provide necessary insight into policy solutions that support students in reaching their most ambitious goals, including transitioning from non-credit training to credit-bearing degree programs.