Published on 2022/03/30

A Student Is a Student Is a Student

A more unified approach to education may reduce expenses on the institution. As school continue to weigh their priorities, their use of noncredit programs acts as a sign of their commitment to the student experience
A more unified approach to education may reduce expenses on the institution. As school continue to weigh their priorities, their use of noncredit programs acts as a sign of their commitment to the student experience

Industry needs to drive curricula changes. Students rely on subject matter experts to create educational experiences to prepare them for the workforce. As colleges and universities evaluate their ability to be flexible and responsive to employer needs, the solution may be tucked away in the organization’s noncredit department. Tearing down the walls between noncredit and credit to create a seamless pathway for students is ultimately the goal in higher education. For example, a student majoring in biology wants to get real-life experience in a healthcare organization before applying to medical school. They find a noncredit course for a nurse aide certification and decide to combine the pathways to create a more robust experience. What about the nontraditional student who has gone back to school to get their business degree? They identify a deficit in understanding some of the software and discover a quick course in the noncredit area that helps fill the gaps.

Examples like these highlight a powerful opportunity for collaboration between a college system’s noncredit and credit divisions; however, there are hurdles that challenge this alliance. Philosophical and operational divides between the two divisions may create territorial issues and misunderstandings. The misalignment between these foundational options often finds noncredit students stuck in the middle.

Students may enter college without an awareness of the differences between noncredit and credit programs. They identify their educational needs and look to the institution to satisfy them. As colleges evaluate student needs, it becomes imperative to understand where noncredit sits in the larger organization. According to the American Association of Community Colleges‘ (AACC) Fast Facts 2021, 42% of community college enrollment comprises noncredit students. The noncredit area has been referred to as the hidden college, a term coined by Voorhees and Milam in 2005. It is frequently used today to highlight the lack of understanding of noncredit education’s function and its importance in the higher education community (D’Amico, 2017).

It should be noted that not all students are interested in earning a degree, and noncredit learning should not be viewed as informal or inferior (Arena, 2013; Buckwalter & Maag, 2019). Noncredit courses can be an effective alternative to credit courses, as noncredit programming supports students with time constraints and sometimes limited resources. These students benefit from a wraparound service model, including career advising and academic support. Often, noncredit students enter the institution with other needs, such as transportation and childcare (Community College Resource Center, 2021). Solutions to these student challenges are often the key to their success in higher education.

An unintended consequence of the lack of collaboration may be duplicated courses in noncredit and credit programming, which can diminish enrollment on both sides (Palter-Gill, 2012; Samuels et al., 2019). Noncredit and credit practitioners often have limited experience with each other’s programming, which may lead to misunderstanding, animosity or perceived competition, diminishing performance on both sides (Academic Senate for California, Community Colleges, 2019; Samuels et al., 2019). Assumptions, both founded or perceived, can impact the working relationship between noncredit and credit divisions.

Organizational structure and college mission may contribute to the noncredit/credit divide. In most institutions, noncredit is a standalone within the community college. Without a collaborative structure, the relationship between credit and noncredit divisions is left to the whims of administrators and faculty, resulting in varying degrees of cooperation (White & DiSilverstro, 2013). Developing a more unified approach may reduce resource duplication and save the college time and money. As educational institutions evaluate their priorities through their mission statements, the presence (or lack thereof) of noncredit is a sign of the institution’s commitment to the noncredit experience.

At many colleges, there is an expectation that the noncredit division will generate a revenue stream for the institution, and many operate like a business unit (Palter-Gill, 2012). But meeting revenue or sales goals is a challenge without significant institutional support for the noncredit division (Fotopoulos, 2021). If limited resources are attached to the noncredit division, it may not attain its institutionally prescribed financial goals. In stretching its resources, the quality of noncredit education and accompanying services could be compromised.

While each college has a unique infrastructure that presents challenges and opportunities, collaborating as a single entity and operating as a single college (or “one college”) can immensely benefit the students and the institution. The treatment that noncredit students receive at their respective institutions is a problem in higher education. A solution to the stalemate between the noncredit and credit divisions is developing partnerships between personnel from both. Find champions on the credit side who recognize the educational potential and willingness to seek innovative opportunities. The ability to demonstrate success with a couple of pilot programs may spark credit faculty and administrator interest in collaborating. As the divisions become more united in their goal to educate students seamlessly, the winner is the student who has chosen to make education a priority.


Academic Senate for California, Community Colleges. (2019a). Noncredit instruction: Opportunity and challenge. Position paper. Revised spring 2019. Academic Senate for California Community Colleges

 Arena, M. (2013). The crisis in credit and the rise of noncredit. Innovative Higher Education, 38(5), 369-381.

Buckwalter, V., Maag, T. (2019). Closing the credit-noncredit divide: Bridging the gap in post-secondary education to expand opportunity for low-wage working adults. Jobs for the Future.

Community College Research Center. (2021, April). Strengthening community college workforce training. Federal Policy Brief.

D’Amico, M.M. (2017). Noncredit education: Specialized programs to meet local needs. New Directions for Community Colleges, 2017(180), 57-66. https//

Fotopoulos, D. (2021). Increasing collaboration between noncredit staff and credit faculty. The Organizational Improvement Plan at Western University.

Palter-Gill, D. (2012). Noncredit and credit divisions in community colleges: The dilemma of multiple organizational identities. (3548986) Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Samuels, K., Estes, M.T., Eckman, H., Gillerlain, K., Jenkins, S., Miller-Edwards, W., Reinauer, O., & Walker, N. (2019). Blending credit & noncredit courses: Best practices, opportunities, barriers. Inquiry, 22(1).

White, R.G., and DiSilverstro, F.R. (2013). Editor’s notes. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2013(140), 1-5.

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