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Finding Financial Support for Non-credit Programming in Community Colleges

With non-credit programming typically offered in continuing education units, it’s time for institutions to rethink its value and who should be able to offer it. 

Non-credit offerings in the community college environment can be tricky when it comes to scaling and growing. Oftentimes, there’s no financial support available, and institutions are left with this great need for programming but no resources to help them deliver it well. This will require a reshaping in legislation to help better fund these offerings. It’s also going to take a reshaping of the minds of institutional leadership to see the benefits non-credit education in community colleges. In this interview, Albert Lewis discusses the challenges behind financing non-credit programming, how these programs can be supported and how to understand the value of non-credit education. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the biggest roadblocks that community colleges face when it comes to growing enrollments in their non-credit programs?

Albert Lewis Jr (AL): The biggest roadblock is funding. Credit-based courses and programs receive support and federal financial aid.  The federal government doesn’t support non-credit courses and programs. Many employers only support reimbursements for students taking credit classes that align with a degree or certificate at the college. Another potential barrier is perception–perception of non-credit classes not having the same quality or rigor that credit-bearing classes have. 

Evo: From a college’s perspective, why is it beneficial or valuable to increase non-credit offerings despite the roadblocks?

AL: You have to think about the basis of non-credit training. Primarily, non-credit training is geared toward adults that already have work experience and education. Most non-credit training or non-credit courses are housed within a continuing education unit. That said, these people already have degrees and are seeking additional skills and knowledge that will help them move up in their existing organization or help them transition to other employment opportunities.

Evo: At the community college level, are the people enrolling in non-credit programming generally folks who already have some educational base and are looking for professional development?

AL: Yes, that’s appears to be the primary reason at our school. Typically, industries also offer certificates within non-credit programming. For instance, Cisco, Microsoft, and CompTIA offer professional certificates housed within many continuing education or non-credit programs. Students receive an education and then that education is validated by certificate attainment. Just to clarify, students will take a course and then sit for an exam sponsored by the certificate provider. Some students may already have the skills, but they don’t have the validation. 

Evo: How would creating financial aid eligibility, or access to non-credit programming, impact decision-making around offering more non-credit or professional development offerings?

AL: It would be a boom for the colleges. If financial aid was extended to non-credit courses and programs, you could actually increase revenue. That could then increase the number of certificates granted because the ability to increase revenue and subsequent margins will allow for reinvestment into courses and programs, making it easier to update content as needed. Being able to constantly improve non-credit programs is essential to their long-term sustainability. 

Evo: From an eligibility perspective, what will it take and who needs to be involved to make non-credit programming eligible for financial aid support?

AL: There are some legislative things that need to happen, both at the state and federal levels, to allow non-credit programs to receive financial aid. Some states already provide it. Also, there is Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding that sometimes support non-credit training. But in terms of federal financial aid at this point at time, nothing’s available. As a matter fact, in the state of Washington, we have a program called worker retraining. And it’s basically funded by WIOA dollars, which supports professional technical training from a credit perspective. If the student is a worker retraining, why should it matter whether they’re enrolled in credit or non-credit programming?

When people enter the worker retraining program, they usually have a masters or bachelor’s degree. Many people entering the program are not focused on completing another degree. Instead, they focus just on the courses they feel they need to improve their skills. It would be great if colleges were allowed to use that money for non-credit courses. Fast track or accelerated programming could be created to move students toward their educational goals in a timelier manner. 

Evo: What do community college leaders need to do to help folks outside the college understand the value of non-credit education, and what data is needed to make that case?

AL: Success stories need to be presented far more often. Every community college has them–where people have gone through a program, earned a certification, received a credential and were hired for a new job. We need to talk about that more from a marketing perspective.  

We’re not talking about a minimum-wage salary, we’re talking about living wage jobs that people are getting because of the certifications they received at our college and many others. It goes back to the whole concept of student success. Most colleges define it from their own institutional points of view. I once attended a GED ceremony during which a man in his 60s spoke about earning his GED. The reason he completed it was because of promise he made to his mother. That example demonstrates student success as defined by the student. 

As colleges, we need to focus on what the student is trying to accomplish versus what we’re trying to direct. Credit versus non-credit, degree versus non degree, or degree versus certification or certificate. We do this to serve our own interests. We should really be sitting down with each of our students and asking them what their goals are–what they’re trying to do and where they’re trying to go. Then, we align a path for that student based on what’s important to them.

Evo: What will it take to make continuing ed and career education a more central part of community colleges’ strategies?

AL: Part of that has to do with truly living in the community college vision. Most community colleges are committed to access, completion, and creating life-long learners. Continuing education addresses life-long learners, but I question how strong commitment is because most continuing education departments are self-supported.

We have to scramble to make as much money as we can to maintain our staff. In many cases, that doesn’t leave a lot of money to reinvest into programming or infrastructure—things that are really needed. When you talk about non-credit programming being part of continuing education programs, we’re not just competing with just other colleges; we’re actually competing with private sector institutions. There are companies out there that deliver tech training, and that’s all they do. Or there are companies that deliver professional development training, and that’s all they do. For community colleges–and most colleges in general–degree attainment is the core mission. I’m not sure what can be done to change that core mission other than saying that continuing education is important and that we want to create lifelong learners. That’s where non-credit training fits into colleges’ commitment to lifelong learners, especially as they transition to different positions or professions in their careers.

Evo: Why should colleges be looking more closely at how to connect and crosswalk credit and non-credit offerings?

AL: It offers a real opportunity because non-credit training is typically less expensive than credit courses are. Also, we can do things faster. If we can take a semester course, do it in three weeks and the student can successfully finish it, why spread it over ten weeks? There are opportunities to create accelerated models that leverage non-credit’s flexibility, mirroring what’s happening in credit programs. If we start to look at ways for people to accelerate their learning, there are some really interesting opportunities available, particularly for adult learners. It’s really important that we make a distinction: accelerated learning makes a lot of sense because the adult learner works full-time, has outside responsibilities, and time is usually an issue. So, if there’s a way to accelerate their path with non-credit offerings that align with identified career pathways, it gets them workforce-ready faster. We need to think more about the adult learner needs.

Evo: What are the distinguishing factors that differentiate an adult learner from the more traditional student that we tend to think about?

AL: Primarily they’re older, established, have bills and families, and they are working. They don’t have the privilege of putting everything on hold to go to school. They have to fit school around their lives. That’s the biggest distinction.

The other piece is that, depending on how long a person has been out of school, you may run into an issue with how much of the general subjects they remember. Are they ready to jump back into a classroom setting and succeed within it? Adult learners have to navigate life while trying to focus on school whereas a traditional student coming out of high school perhaps still treats school like a party. 

Evo: What does it take to make sure that your infrastructure is designed to deliver adult students the customer experience they need to be able to focus on academics as opposed to navigating the bureaucracy?

AL: If we thought of our students more like customers, we would probably think about them very differently. In retail, the customer is king, and corporations are always trying to figure out new ways to engage them.

There are some schools that do a great job of engaging students, but I would say that that is not par for the course. We have to figure out a way to reach students and be able to sit down and have that conversation. Or at least leverage technology to do assessments, so we can have a conversation about their interests and career goals. If we could become more intentional about that process, we could then work much better with students and subsequently improve their outcomes.

Evo: Should community colleges be playing a bigger role in the baccalaureate degree space?

AL: Absolutely. When I think about community colleges moving into the baccalaureate space, I think about brand extension. You have students for two years and then you hand them off to somebody else? Does that make sense? Moving into the baccalaureate space is a natural progression for community colleges. 

You grow community colleges by extending the time the student attends that school. And you do that by creating a baccalaureate offering that aligns with the college’s associate’s degrees.  Typically, these are Bachelor of Applied Science degrees (BAS) that combine theory and hands-on learning. For an employer, that means hiring talent who has the fundamentals to excel rapidly upon hire.

Since this student will have both theoretical and experiential learning opportunities in their field, they should be ready to go. They should be further advanced than someone coming from a traditional bachelor’s degree program. 

In today’s workforce it has become more about skills than knowledge. You walk into a company with skills that can be applied immediately, and have the added benefit of a BAS makes one more promotable. With a BAS, the student can compete on the same level as someone with a bachelor’s degree from four-year universities and colleges. In other words, it puts our students in a better position than they would be in if they were only graduating with an associate’s degree. In many cases, depending on where you are in the country, the associate’s degree might not be enough to even get you in the door. So, we can both fulfill that requirement and do it in a more cost-effective way than four-year institutions.

Evo: What are the roadblocks to establishing that model to have robust crosswalks between non-credit and credit, where credentials might align with career progressions in specific fields?

AL: There are a lot of political dynamics that come into play when you start to think about community college having four-year degrees. When thinking about creating more pathways internally, the perception for many instructors is that non-credit programming is somehow inferior to credit programming because it hasn’t gone through as rigorous a vetting process as a credit program.

That’s internal. Externally, you’re competing with other institutions. These institutions were used to us sending them our students after two years. Now, we’re holding onto them, and that impacts their enrollment. It’s as if you’re interrupting the food chain. That could be a hard hit to regional universities.

In many cases, community colleges are bigger than some of the smaller public universities in the U.S. So, it could be significant if a number of those community colleges all of a sudden start offering baccalaureate degrees. 

Evo: What potential is there for a partnership product—like a student-sharing program or a collaborative degree program–existing between some of the public universities and the community colleges to overcome some of those fears?

AL: There are programs like that. In some communities there are university centers, where the university is actually located on the community college campus. Some community colleges offer three-plus-one programs–where you spend three years on the community college campus and one year at a four-year school to get your degree. There are schools using the 3+1 model right now. How prevalent they are, I’m not sure, but it depends on what state and environment you’re in. Funding is different in every state. I always say that community colleges are like snowflakes–no two are alike.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the potential to serve lifelong learners out of community college?

AL: People underestimate the quality of non-credit offerings. Depending on the community college, the level of robustness really is driven by the local community and its needs. 

Many non-credit courses and programs are quite robust, of high quality, and offer the skills that employers are demanding right now. But there are some duds too, and that’s the challenge–getting rid of the duds so that you can make sure your graduates are immediately employable. 

It used to be that people would come and say, “I’ve got a course I want to put out there.” That’s not happening as much. Our program directors drive programming based on advisory council input as well as labor market data telling us what’s needed. If you’re going to have a good, robust non-credit program, you need to make sure that you have advisory councils helping program directors select the right programs that make sense for the community and that will upskill workers in their current roles or transition them to new roles within the community. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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