Merging Credit and Noncredit: It Can Be Done
With the increase of noncredit demands, colleges and universities are beginning to see an equal split between their credit and noncredit or adult education learners. The Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS) decided that the best way to serve these demographics was to merge the two units into one. In this interview, Rene Cintron discusses how LCTCS was able to undergo this shift, the benefits it provides and how institutions can begin to merge their units to provide a more cohesive and seamless system.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did LCTCS choose to bring together its noncredit and credit programs into a single unit, and what impact has it had on its students?
Rene Cintron (RC): LCTCS is a public multi-institution system serving a diverse student population seeking workforce development training, academic programs, and the high school equivalency. The twelve independently accredited institutions span every parish of the state and each year collectively serve 145,000 students. Nearly half of the students served are in credit programs while the remaining half are close to evenly divided between noncredit and students in adult education. Bringing credit, noncredit, and adult education under the same unit in the system office provides us with the opportunity to improve integration across the board.
The purpose is offering expanded options to students that address their career and education needs under one unit. For example, healthcare program, whether credit or noncredit, will now fall under the same healthcare department. This is also the case at the system office with other industry areas like transportation, logistics, construction, manufacturing, and computing. The same industry lead at the system office now works with credit and noncredit leaders at the colleges.
It’s beneficial for students to have a full menu of the program options available to them that align with their personal and career needs. Having credit and noncredit share that focus provides the opportunity to collaboratively develop educational offerings that integrate both short-term programs with direct paths into employment as well as long-term programs of study with seamless transitions between the two. The student journey from pre-application to post graduation becomes more efficient and targeted to student needs as aligned with industry demand.
Evo: What are some of the institutional benefits that can come from this?
RC: Arriving at benefits for the institution starts with the mindset of treating students as students. There are many things each side of the house can learn from the other as we work as one unit. Noncredit leaders can take advantage of credit program structures, and at the same time, credit program leaders can take advantage of the flexibility that comes from noncredit training. For example, noncredit programs are typically nimble enough to make changes fairly quickly, so in order to emulate this behavior in credit approvals, LCTCS instituted a program adoption policy whereby programs of study already approved at any one institution can be adopted, bypassing months of paperwork and processing. On the flip side, the noncredit credential approval process created standardization across the colleges using the same definition of credentials of value.
By working together, we ensure standards are in place while we expedite processes thereby increasing opportunity to build pathways between noncredit and credit credentials. One aspect of removing barriers of transition is the integration of multiple student information systems into a single data system. LCTCS and the colleges benefit from live automation and complete integration, which is important for all stakeholders including students, faculty, and staff as it helps enhance and streamline the user experience, and helps increase user satisfaction and customer service. Educational paths become clearer for our customer as we present our offerings as a unified solution regardless of credit or noncredit status, focusing instead on our students’ career needs and goals and improving their employment prospects and earnings.
Evo: What are the challenges to merging noncredit and credit offerings?
RC: Of course, combining departments into one unit is not easy. For one, the perception of success is quite different between these departments. In noncredit, success is measured by the ability to serve industry through short-term training leading to an individual being ready for work. This work is typically done in close collaboration with industry partners and leads to an industry recognized credential. In credit training, there are also short-term certificates as well as longer term programs building up to an associate’s degree and focusing on students transferring to a partner university. Success here has multiple possibilities such as graduation, employment (shared with noncredit), and transfer to name a few. The path to completion looks different in many ways with velocity being a major difference.
All program students have three things in common: they continue, graduate, or stop without completing a degree. This is where a focus on student experience comes in handy. A big challenge has been properly communicating each of these differences from the lens of the student experience and highlighting how the experience can benefit both students and the institution when we focus on student goals rather what department the courses and credentials are taught in. This requires changes within organizational structures and culture; some units have not traditionally worked this close together and must now learn new processes. It can be the small details that bring great discussion when creating a single admissions application that takes these differences into account. This is all part of ensuring students have an efficient and easy application, registration, payment, and other processes. All of this takes time, and the more we work together to convert those challenges into opportunities for improvement, the better the student experience becomes.
Evo: What are some best practices to make for a more seamless merge?
RC: Beyond having defined the scope and objective, clear, concise, and timely communication is critical to making this a successful process. Once the units are combined at the system office, we immediately blended the team leaders, which helped with cross communication and collaboration.
Early in the process of moving the data into a single systemwide database, we invited various stakeholders into the discussion through open campus forums and provided updates via a website we created for the project. The campus forums were open to anyone, and we discussed potential pains in the existing process, the gains to be had, and answered audience questions. In addition to the forums, meetings were held with representatives from each college and various functional units across the institution, extending to staff in information technology, institutional research, institutional advancement, human resources, and finance, to name a few.
Combining credit and noncredit not only affects those two units but impacts many other areas and representatives, which is why it’s important to establish strong coordination and collaboration across departments. Establishing common definitions of terms is crucial to ensure we are all playing by the same rules. For example, the system’s definition of credentials was developed in collaboration with both credit and noncredit leaders among others. The group determined that the definition would have three components (evidence of competencies, substantial job demand, and evidence of earning outcomes) along with acceptable measures for each.
While communication is a big piece, other practices that contribute to success have including having champions from each area to help guide and lead the work, tracking progress on an established timeline, employing agile iterations with two-week bursts of accomplishments, and keeping a close focus on the end goal of a better student experience.
Evo: How will this shift into a new normal affect both noncredit and credit offerings?
RC: We are doing things differently as a result of COVID-19. The changes we made are grounded in digital inclusion that should extend beyond the contingency changes that occurred this year. Grounding the transformation in something other than a pandemic or emergency is important for longevity.
In order to accomplish this vision of digitally inclusivity, we need to (1) enhance our course/service delivery mechanisms and (2) tackle the digital divide in our communities. The path to a digitally inclusive educational environment encompasses transforming instructional practices, student services, and business operations. We have worked with the goal of ensuring students are college-ready, but we must work together to ensure our colleges are student-ready, shifting from mass instruction where we expect the student to fit into the larger group and moving to individualized coaching where we expect our systems and processes to meet and accommodate the student.
Each student regardless of course type should receive services (advising, tutoring, communications, etc.) in flexible formats to help them succeed, and the same goes for instruction. Courses formerly taught 100% in-person transition to a hybrid or online design and delivery. Courses requiring hands-on applications and assessments utilize an appropriate mixture of online, simulation, and e-learning technology to support new digital literacy.
The focus is not on whether the course is credit or noncredit but instead on the skills students need to achieve their goals. We need to ensure student success by providing distinctive and flexible experiences that foster lifelong achievements.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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