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Evolving Non-Credit Programming in the Community College Space

No matter what education path someone takes, work-based and experiential learning will always hold high value—something that community colleges need to incorporate into their program models. 

Community colleges are there to serve their community and get its members back into the workforce as soon as possible. Non-credit programming, although not usually seen in community colleges, has the ability to accelerate this process by getting students the right credentials for a specific job. Community colleges need to look to their learners who may not see themselves as “college material” and help them see the potential in these programs. In this interview, Tracy Hartzler and Erica Barreiro discuss the challenges of growing enrollments in non-credit, how colleges can scale these programs and tying non-credit into the lifelong learning model. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the biggest roadblocks that tend to stand in the way of enrollment growth in non-credit, non-degree areas for community colleges?

Tracy Hartzler (TH): One of the biggest barriers is helping students access the non-credit, non-degree training that they need and the funding to pay for it. We all know how that works for high school graduates or even adults going back to college for credit certificates and degrees, but this is much less clear for non-credit, non-degree education

Each state funds and prioritizes workforce training differently. We have to look at the key partnerships that need to be engaged, leveraged, and developed, whether it’s with our local workforce boards or our state or local agencies, to provide an easy path for people to get much-needed training. There’s a variety of potential funding sources but we need to focus on funding non-credit training

Erica Barreiro (EB): It’s interesting because these barriers have existed for a long time, but national conversations on how to address them have only been emerging in the last three years. COVID-19 has accelerated and magnified these conversations. The idea of giving individuals universal learning credits or opportunities to access funding that they can apply to a wide variety of their learning needs wasn’t even on the table as a consideration before. But with the massive job displacement now, people are seeing the fractures and the fissures of the existing postsecondary and training systems—and that these fractures prevent people from accessing some quicker solutions and pathways.

Evo: How does it benefit a college to expand its non-degree offerings, especially when credit-bearing offerings tend to be eligible for financial aid, whereas non-degree offerings generally aren’t?

TH: This is part of a larger national conversation for the last decade or so in the country and with large foundations. How do all states in the country move the needle on scaling up our workforce more efficiently and more effectively? That includes everything from traditional trades to students entering a two-year institution with plans to transfer to a four-year university. In New Mexico, there was significant movement through policy to promote credential and degree attainment. As a result, we’ve seen significant growth in post-secondary credentials and degrees.

We’re also seeing a movement and need beyond formal degrees or certificates. There’s a specific need for more accelerated skills-based training or retraining, in addition to having work-based learning opportunities. People value work-based and experiential learning, no matter the educational path chosen.

It’s a part of our mission to serve the public good as a community college. We need to provide what helps our community members improve their household income and economic prospects. And we need to provide them direct access to careers that support our region’s economic development needs, so we contribute to prosperity for all. Skills-based training is a natural extension of the community college mission. It’s not an either/or. We have to provide the range of education and skills-based training to meet our diverse population. We still know that degrees and training pathways are needed for advancement. And we know we can provide greater resilience for everybody when we have well-defined options in the various pathways as the economy changes over time, and as we experience incredible downturns. 

EB: We’re recognizing that a degree does not suffice anymore for a lifetime of work. Our federal financial aid funding was built to fund degree completion. But what happens once you’ve completed a degree? Oftentimes, you need to go back to get skillsets to stay relevant, especially with the pace of accelerated change that we’re going to experience in the future. We’ll have a significant number of individuals who need educational post-secondary educational services who already have a degree. They need a menu of options that suit them, as well as the financial support to pay for them.  

Like many community colleges, we’re really looking at how to develop credit for prior learning pathways that recognize what people have learned outside of formal education and how these experiences transfer into degree credits. We’re also looking at how non-credit programs, certificates and courses that an individual may have previously accumulated grant them credits for what they’ve already learned and show them potential pathways to new careers. If you completed a program, course, or certificate in the non-credit realm, how does that translate to progress on an associate’s degree?

Then there’s community colleges’ equity and social justice mission. We work with a significant population who doesn’t see itself as “college material.” This belief has been internalized. And non-credit can open a door for those individuals. Once they’ve succeeded in a non-credit environment attached to an institution of higher education, we have the opportunity to bring them into the credit environment. We can tell them that they’ve done college-level work so they’re essentially a college student–why not come finish the rest of your journey?

Evo: How are you thinking about the evolving role of non-degree and non-credit programming within the context of the lifelong learning spectrum?

TH: Without a doubt we are thinking about this. If we think about lifelong learning, it just has a different connotation of life and mind exploration. What I’m finding at the community college level is a richer  depth to the learning, and it’s hands-on. There’s an element that makes it feel applicable, valuable, and tangible.  There are a number of four-year institutions beginning to look at experiential learning and how to supplement it. Or they are seeking ways to make sure bachelor’s degree students seek that component in their education because they know how valuable it is to employers. Also, programs should include hands-on, practical examples to help students make sense of the academic or theoretical lessons they learn. There’s a blending of these efforts at many levels of post-secondary education, but community colleges are distinctly able to reach so many more people with broader skillsets when they’re starting off.

EB: In regards to that point, community colleges are very well-versed in partnering with local employers to understand what their workforce needs are. We’re really well positioned to serve as that hub for people needing to change careers. The statistic I’ve heard used by Heather McGowan is that today’s college graduates will have 17 different careers across five different industries, so it goes back to seeing a very different relationship with colleges.

Evo: Does participating in a course marketplace replace internal efforts to scale and strengthen non-credit, non-degree and career programming?

EB: It absolutely doesn’t replace but instead accelerates and scales what we are already doing. It offers us a chance to learn from other colleges and potentially share curriculum to enhance what we offer our local community as well as the marketplace. It strengthened our own internal efforts. We can see where there are gaps in the work that we need to do as we’re offering something to a different marketplace. We’re trying to communicate why there’s a certain pricing structure for a particular course and how it differs from somebody else’s pricing structure. We know there are good reasons for that, but we’ve never had to communicate it in the ways that we are now. 

All these translate into practices that we can bring back into our own internal efforts. It’s also enhancing our efforts in student course access. It’s just like Amazon: you set up an account, provide an email address, phone number and credit card, and you can purchase a course. It’s so easy. So, what does that influence how we think about those transactions and making education easier to access from the first step for all students. Not that we don’t need systems that gather additional information, but how do we take an experience like that and rethink how students interact with us?


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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