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For Credit or Not? Exploring the Value of Non-Credit Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | For Credit or Not? Exploring the Value of Non-Credit Higher Education
Though colleges and universities tend to see non-credit programming as, at best, a cash cow and at worst a separate entity with minimal connection to mission, non-credit programs are central to helping to create the highly-skilled workforce critical to success in the knowledge economy.

In K-12 education arenas, the relationship between college and careers are at the forefront of most discussions. Paths to college and career readiness are complex.  Educational policies and practices are needed to help school leaders, educators and advisors support families and students in being ready for achievement in colleges and careers. While the percentage of low-income K-12 students is increasing and currently they are the majority of students attending public schools in the U.S., the percentage of these students enrolling in college immediately after high school graduation has declined since 2008, according to a new American Council on Education study.[1]

Continuing to think about the role of higher education in supporting students, a report issued by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found only 46 percent of employed millennials believed their college education was useful in preparing them for careers. Thus, two- and four-year institutions of higher education may want to explore new opportunities in credit-bearing and non-credit courses as well as professional development credit, continuing education credit, credit towards a certificate, and stackable credentials in order to serve future learners.

The Lumina Foundation gathered over 200 thought leaders in education, public policy and workforce development in October 2015 to explore “Connecting Credentials.”  Degrees, certificates, licenses, industry certifications, digital badges and other credentials are the means by which skills and knowledge were documented. These credentials connect people to jobs, advanced educational programs, and career paths.

But what do these credentials mean in terms of competencies and how do they connect for employers and learners? Should the programs and courses be for credit or not?

Workforce leaders indicate that higher levels of knowledge and skills are needed by employees for a strong economy and society.  However, for low-income, first generation and adult students, these new complex credentials linked to new complex education marketplaces beyond high schools demand thoughtful discussions about credit and non-credit courses and what types of credits are being offered by higher education institutions.

Postsecondary non-credit education students outnumber credit students in many two-year colleges.[2]  According to this report, “Noncredit Enrollment in Workforce Education,” there is a need to offer both credit and non-credit courses as well as to develop linkages between these two forms of courses with higher education institutions. The organizational structures vary widely within colleges and universities as to how credit and non-credit courses are delivered.  There are completely segregated structures where non-credit is in an independent division, along with well-integrated structures where non-credit and credit courses and programs are interspersed within an academic unit by content area. Many two-year colleges have reorganized their non-credit workforce education to meet employers’ needs.  Workforce development has become a priority on many campuses as they can bring innovation to academic programs by aligning local labor markets to local educational entities, attract external funding and deliver education in new ways to meet new learners’ needs and interests. With solid alignment of learning outcomes and articulation agreements, non-credit workforce education can support career pathways leading from short-term training for workforce development to degrees and credentials associated with long-term workforce demands in areas such as healthcare, engineering, science and technology.

Another area that is important for higher education to consider as it forms partnerships with employers is credit for prior learning (CPL).[3] A number of higher education institutions are articulating corporate and workplace training and credentialing to create pathways to degree completion. More than 2,000 colleges and universities are part of ACE’s National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training program where credit recommendations are made after a review of the content, scope, and rigor of organizations’ non-credit training programs, courses, and examinations. Employees, along with employers, are indicating learning that has led to theoretical as well as practical knowledge is taking place on the job and more students are requesting credit for prior learning. Some professional organizations partner with colleges and universities to offer credit for conference participation after an assessment of learning.

The state of Washington invested millions of dollars, over a six-year period, in Hospital Employee Education and Training (HEET). This program was designed to build a strong, diverse and skilled health care workforce for Washington State.  Funds were available for labor, management and college partnerships to develop, expand, and evaluate programs so health care workers could advance their careers.[4]  HEET formed partnerships and altered the ways colleges, labor and management approached issues of education, training and professional advancement.[5]  Several reforms included credit for skills learned on the job and education linked directly to industry needs. Additionally, with HEET, colleges discovered ways to reach diverse working students rather than creating entrance requirements that created barriers to their admission.

Today more than ever, postsecondary education’s credentials are complex and multi-layered, with credit and non-credit being one of the challenges that will need to be addressed. Critical conversations are essential among three key groups:

  • Learners and workers who seek skills and knowledge to be competitive in the workforce.
  • Employers who seek skilled employees that can compete in national and global arenas.
  • Educators and leaders in diverse institutions of higher education who are challenged to provide quality education and meaningful credentials based on the competencies needed by learners, employees and employers.

It appears with thoughtful dialogue there will be a blending of credit and non-credit courses and programs with the focus on competencies needed for learners and employees in dynamic workplaces and societies.

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[1] Nellum, C. J. & Hartle, T. W. (2015). Where have all the low-income students gone? A blog by ACE. Higher Education Today.

[2] Van Noy, M., Jacobs, J., Korey, S., Bailey, T., & Hughes, K. L. (2008).  Noncredit enrollment in workforce education: State policies and community college practices [Report]. Washington, DC: American Association of Community College and Community College Research Center.

[3] American Council on Education. College/Employer Partnerships-Collaboration through CPL. Webinar.  November 19, 2015.

[4] Healthcare Career Advancement Program (-CAP) & Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), University of Wisconsin-Madison (2014). Turn Up the HEET! Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

[5] Ibid

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