Offering Non-Credit in Community Colleges
Non-credit education isn’t typically seen in the community college space, but it offers colleges a great opportunity to grow and expand their markets. Not structured to serve this type of programming, community colleges need to find ways in which they can best serve their students with fast and stackable programs. In this interview, Toni Pendergrass and Adrienne Forgette discuss community colleges scaling non-credit programs, what it takes to meet learners’ needs in non-credit education and how to make it more accessible.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the biggest roadblocks that a community college is going to face when it comes to growing enrollments in non-credit programming specifically?
Adrienne Forgette (AF): One of the roadblocks is that many of our non-credit and workforce programs tend to be the second thing that we do as a community college. They’re not as well known to students as our credit offerings. But there’s this sense that they are the first thing that we do–this is where we’ll need editing, but students pick up on that message.
Toni Pendergrass (TP): Sometimes it’s difficult to locate faculty to teach some of these non-credit offerings as well, like short-term IT programs that require a highly specialized skillset. It’s sometimes difficult in a rural area to locate people with specific credentials on the non-credit side.
AF: Most of our employers are small to medium in size. They’re not going to hire huge numbers of students out of any particular training program. So, how do we partner with them? How do we be there for our local employers and do it in a financially sustainable way?
Evo: Why is it beneficial for the college to offer programs, even though most of them aren’t eligible for financial aid?
TP: That’s what students are demanding. A Strada survey has been conducted since the start of the pandemic, and 62% of those surveyed indicated that they strongly preferred non-degree programs and skills training over degree programs. So that’s where the demand is, and we need to strive to meet it.
AF: It’s interesting that there seem to be two groups of learners here: those who need some basic job entry skills and a path to employment, and a group who already have a degree and are returning to acquire in-demand skills. And the second group, I think, is becoming a larger part of this non-credit market.
Evo: What does it take to deliver an experience that meets non-degree learners’ expectations and market demand?
AF: In terms of student-centricity, most community colleges are not organized to serve non-credit, credit, online, face-to-face, and adult traditional students in the same way. We’re very compartmentalized and segmented. Just this week, I’ve started thinking about implementing more of a one-door approach to how we operate, where everybody comes in and goes through a very student-focused admissions and counseling advising process that helps them sort out where they want to go. Does it matter to us if it’s credit or non-credit, online or face to face? I probably haven’t thought about it nearly enough, but I think a lot of people are starting to talk about what it might look like when we blend these things more.
TP: I agree with Adrienne. It needs to be an integrated approach through which everyone receives wraparound support services throughout their entire college experience, regardless of whether it’s credit or non-credit.
Evo: A common feature of the non-credit experience is that benefits or services aren’t really accessible or they don’t meet students’ needs like they do in degree programs. What’s at the heart of that divide?
AF: Part of it is a “follow the money” thing. Traditional students have access to financial aid that basically finances the whole college’s infrastructure. On the non-credit side, financial support isn’t there. For instance, we don’t get the same level of state funding for non-credit offerings. Our students may qualify for programs like WIOA or some other benefits, but it’s not the same. So, we’re trying to do potentially high impact but on a shoestring budget.
We’ve actually made the decision to, at San Juan College, offer supports to non-credit students. They can go to the tutoring center; we don’t have meal plans, but they’re always welcome at the cafeteria; parking is free, so that’s not an issue; and we’ll also offer them our wraparound services in terms of food pantry and other supports like that. We don’t draw lines, but it’s only recently that we’ve been explicit that we will do these things. It’s still a different outreach process for them. So, it’s structural, financial, traditional—the kind of thing that we want to take apart and put back together in a different way.
TP: A lot of those offerings are short-term, so we don’t always think through exactly what a student needs in that short amount of time. There’s also another segment of our students on the non-credit side who are corporate training students. We have strong relationships with our industry partners, and these students are generally at the college for a short amount of time for very specific training. It may be just a one-day training to gain some experience that they need in their place of work. So, we probably don’t think enough around what other types of support they need, too. That’s profitable for us, but we are really focused on the time they are with us for and what experience they receive during it.
AF: Since those students are coming to us through an employer, they’re typically better resourced than some of the other students that come through our center for workforce development.
Evo: How would financial aid access to non-credit programming impact decision-making, both in terms of prospective students but also for colleges making programming choices?
TP: It would be extremely helpful to have sufficient resources for all of our students, but its’s our responsibility to build packages, so that they all have options, no matter what they choose to pursue on the credit or non-credit side.
AF: It’s a game changer, and it creates a lot of impetus for the college to change in response to that as well.
Evo: What’s it going to take to make non-credit and career education a more central part of the strategy and focus of community colleges and those departments from being on the periphery of the institution to very much its core?
TP: Some institutions have adapted very well in recent years to offer more workforce development options. And you see it specifically in states where funding support has been reduced on the credit side. We’re very fortunate in New Mexico to receive the large portion of our funding from our state appropriations on the credit side, but we’ve had to diversify our revenue streams and really look to the non-credit side to bring in additional sources of revenue–on the corporate side, especially. It just depends on the college’s financial situation, but I know that there are several community colleges that garner more revenue on the non-credit side. They’ve had to make strategic decisions based on what’s best for their institution and their particular situation.
AF: Some of the baby steps in this process are making sure that there are clear pathways, so that course elements are designed to be seamlessly integrated into them, and students can start wherever they need to and go from there. Our workforce students are on to something with their drop-in/drop-out approach. It’s about being relevant to student needs. For instance, right now there’s a huge demand for short-term programs. Before that, there was always a huge demand for four-year programs. What will it be like in the future, and how do we prepare for it? We’re still figuring out how all those things work together and have some work to do.
TP: One thing that has been extremely successful for us is our bootcamps. One of them has been in partnership with an employer named PESCO—a manufacturing facility–here in our community. We’ve been able to design and partner with our workforce solutions department at the regional and state levels, so students learn while they earn. After the six-week boot camp, we guarantee that they will be interviewed by the employer, and every time we’ve offered this, they have hired every one of the graduates out of the bootcamp.
Evo: How can colleges start to develop an ecosystem that places them at the heart of the working-and-learning pathway for learners?
TP: It just involves maintaining really strong partnerships with your community employers and local workforce development boards, working together to create innovative solutions that meet the demand. It’s important that people have entry-level skills for jobs, but we can bridge them over so that they can have a certificate or degree. A lot of people need a position as soon as possible to provide for their families.
AF: There’s always been this question of whether we are preparing students for work or for life. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s always a both/and, in my view. When you start thinking about what makes for meaningful work, you start thinking about what it means to be a good person, how work fits into a whole life. It remains really easy to separate those two, and one of the big potentials for thinking about more integrated approaches is how we hold onto both sides.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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