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Getting Over Roadblocks: How Community Colleges Can Grow Enrollment

Community colleges can develop high-quality non-credit programming but what’s most important is that they illustrate the value of this pathway to their students and faculty. 

Community colleges have an opportunity to not only retain but gain enrollment rates and increase their revenue through non-credit programming. Easier said than done, community colleges first need to ensure that their students understand the value of non-credit programs and how they can benefit their career growth. It’s up to the colleges to provide their learners with the education they need, while guiding them through it. In this interview, Kristin Gubser discusses the obstacles community colleges face, the importance of transfer pathways for students and how focusing on non-credit degree programming can help bring in more tuition dollars. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the biggest roadblocks that a community college is going to face when trying to grow enrollments in non-degree programming?

Kristin Gubser (KG): From the global perspective, one of the biggest roadblocks is making sure that students understand what they’re choosing when they enroll in college training, whether that be a credit or non-credit program and whether they earn a credential, certificate or degree. College certificates and degrees still hold a lot of value. As individuals start with the non-credit training program, they shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the credit, certificate or degree can serve a purpose throughout their careers. Making sure students really understand what they’re taking, when they’re taking it and why, is important. 

One of the biggest roadblocks specifically to community colleges in growing non-credit enrollment is technology. The records systems, enrollment systems, and procurement systems that community colleges have become dependent on to report to the federal government and to our accrediting agencies are cumbersome. It is a real challenge for community colleges to be significant players in the non-credit training space if backend support isn’t there for them.

Evo: How important is it that the system piece is aligned to create a clear pathway for students? How much work does it take from staff right now to try to mimic an Amazon-like experience for students when they’re working with traditional systems?

KG: It’s virtually impossible for a community college to try to mimic an Amazon-like system on its own. That type of marketplace is so important to non-credit training because there is so much training available. In order for a student to be able to find the best type of training for the right price at the right time—having a one-stop shop—is incredibly valuable. But with the systems that colleges rely on today, having that storefront marketplace is practically impossible.

Evo: Why focus on developing non-degree programming as opposed to focusing on expanding credit-bearing offerings that bring in subsidized tuition dollars?

KG: Non-credit and credit programs tend to attract different audiences. So, you’re reaching out to and serving different markets. Oftentimes, the credit programs are really targeting the just out of high school, first to college, straight into school type of student as well as the older adult student. These students might have some training, and a family to take care of, and they tend to be more mature in their careers. These individuals may need that college credential in order to move up into leadership and managerial positions. 

The non-credit market is really for skill enhancement–to be able to test professional competencies, where individuals can access training very quickly on their own time. They’re not looking for programs for which they’re going to need federal financial aid. They understand that they are paying for non-credit training that it is immediately going to pay off in terms of a pay raise and increased responsibility. 

If community colleges don’t enter that space, they’re losing that type of non-credit student. If we can attract them with quick training, non-credit credentials, and deliver them a great experience, they’re more likely to stay with the community college. And their families will stay with that college through generations of the lifelong learning cycle. 

Evo: How important is it to find ways to generate revenue from services and unused physical spaces as a way to combat some of those budget crunches that tend to happen when you’re reliant on state dollars?

KG: It’s incredibly important. We, at GateWay Community College, which is part of the Maricopa County Community College District in Arizona, were eliminated from our state budget a number of years ago. We have tried–and we continue to pursue–different ways to generate revenue to make up for that loss in aid. but it’s almost a catch-22. We have to generate revenue, so we can keep our programs affordable. Many of our programs are equipment-heavy and technology-heavy so that we can graduate the most highly trained professionals who don’t need on-the-job training. They’re ready to work in the field on day one. That type of equipment and technology is very expensive. 

It’s quite an interesting balancing act–to generate revenue but stay faithful to our commitment and mission. What we want to do for students is be as affordable, accessible and high-quality as we possibly can. So, we are very creative and always looking at ways to leverage our assets through either cost-sharing or revenue-generating partnerships. We want to help fill that gap so that we don’t have to depend on increased taxes and tuition. That isn’t part of our mission. We want to be the solution, not the problem.

Evo: Does joining the marketplace replace internal efforts to scale and strengthen non-credit career programming or is it a different channel?

KG: It doesn’t replace what we’re doing in terms of trying to scale and strengthen non-credit training. It certainly complements it and allows us to really expand our reach across the country in areas that we wouldn’t be able to reach on our own. It enables us to leverage our collective strengths and highlight the program areas that we’re really strong in at GateWay. We can conduct feasibility tests for new training and programs by tracking data in ways that we haven’t been able to before. The marketplace platform provides a lot of rich data on what is trending with students and what price points they’re willing to pay for non-credit training. 

Where the opportunities exist, we can then then extrapolate full credit programs from some of the non-credit training, and perhaps outreach to those students so they can finish their certificate or degree as they move through their career. 

Locally, we will continue to offer non-credit community education workshops for enrichment, as well as custom contract training. But by being a part of a marketplace, we’re able to make sure that if we don’t have what a student needs, we can connect them to training at another college. We’re making sure that students succeed no matter where they start or what program they choose. It’s been a real benefit for us to scale some of our efforts nationally, as a lot of the things we’ve wanted to do solely as one college would’ve been too manpower-intensive, marketing-intensive, and technology-intensive.

Evo: Would students or employers in your service district engage with the marketplace in order to enroll in a course or a program, or would they still come to

KG: We would encourage them to go to the marketplace. The marketplace is a wonderful tool and a resource for individuals looking to compare cost, time, programs, and training. When it’s a business-to-business need, when an employer needs custom or non-credit training for a group of employees, it would be more of a college-to-business relationship. Whereas with any individuals looking to move up to that next level, to get into a field, to re-career, we would direct them to the marketplace to do that comparative shopping.

Evo: What’s it going to take to make non-credit career education a more central part of the strategy and of the focus of community colleges?

KG: It’s going to take an institution-wide understanding of the benefits of that type of delivery. At GateWay we offer clock-hour training in addition to non-credit and credit-hour programs. A collective understanding of the markets we serve through each type of training, and that each type of training presents different opportunities for student success, will position us well to maximize lifelong learning potential for all.  


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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