States should lead in noncredit education policy (opinion)

July 8, 2024
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As many higher education systems have reshaped their offerings to be more responsive to workforce demands, noncredit education and training programs—which are usually shorter-term opportunities for students to gain specific skills and qualifications rather than earn an associate or bachelor’s degree—are gaining tremendous popularity.

There are an estimated 3.7 million community college students enrolled in noncredit programs, which are often offered through continuing education departments; yet, 34 percent of colleges “rarely” or “never” make it possible for students to leverage their noncredit experience into credit toward a degree. Given the overall jump in lifetime earnings for degree holders, this is a huge missed opportunity.

Higher education leaders have an obligation to ensure that noncredit opportunities not only offer immediate labor market value to both learners and employers but can also serve as cost-effective entryways to credit-bearing degree pursuits in high-demand fields. This opportunity enables students to efficiently achieve upward economic mobility.

Last year, my team at Education Strategy Group spoke with more than 80 learners with noncredit coursework experience from 20 institutions in an effort to better understand their aspirations for pursuing noncredit training. What we heard, over and over again, was that many learners who start in noncredit opportunities ultimately do want degrees.

This may come as a surprise to some higher education leaders, because evidence suggests the rates at which learners in noncredit programs transition to credit-bearing ones are low. The low transition rates are often attributed to misinformed biases about students who enroll in noncredit courses, including about their long-term intent, academic preparedness or prior achievements. In fact, there is a general lack of policies, systems and advising to support noncredit learners in navigating the on- and off-ramps to different educational and career opportunities. The generalizations about noncredit learners reinforce an already bifurcated system of noncredit and credit and curtail the aspirations of learners who, in fact, may want to pursue longer-term training opportunities.

There are a number of institutions that have taken bold steps to increase supports to students in noncredit programs and even rethink organizational structures to foster more authentic collaboration on behalf of their noncredit students. But it is clear that without better policy and data infrastructure, their progress will be limited.

That is because noncredit is a major blind spot in federal higher education policy; in fact, the federal government collects no data on students in noncredit programs. There was an attempt to amend the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System survey—the main source of federal higher education data about U.S. colleges and universities and their students—to include noncredit students in 2022, but unfortunately those efforts stalled.

Federal financial aid for students in noncredit programs is also limited. Pell Grants, at least for now, are only available to students participating in training programs that consist of at least 600 clock hours of instruction. Many noncredit programs do not meet that threshold, which means that the cost of the program disproportionately falls on individual students. Congress could change that requirement with something like short-term Pell, a version of which was reintroduced last year with noncredit-to-credit mobility included as an important criterion to be eligible for funding.

For now, at least, it is up to state policymakers to expand opportunities for learners in noncredit programs. But states vary considerably in the degree to which they define, fund and collect data on noncredit offerings. And most state policymakers have limited information about the role noncredit education plays in the lives of learners and the competitiveness of the state economy.

For the nearly four million learners who enroll in noncredit education and training, it’s time that states take a firm stance on noncredit learning experiences and see them as viable on-ramps into credit-based programs. States can create the enabling conditions for their institutions to better support students in noncredit programs by taking a range of steps, including:

  • Developing a common understanding of what we mean by noncredit workforce training. Noncredit programs come in many shapes and sizes—from adult basic education to vocational and career technical education. This variety means each education or training provider has its own idea of what “workforce-relevant” noncredit offerings are, making it more challenging to establish common definitions and data standards and, ultimately, to ensure that students are accessing high-value opportunities that open doors. States should start by inventorying and organizing the noncredit activities currently being offered at public institutions and defining how success is or should be measured within similar programs.
  • Defining and tracking success metrics for noncredit training, including enrollment, completions and transitions between noncredit and credit-bearing programs. The lack of federal reporting requirements for noncredit programs means capacity has not been developed to measure data on noncredit enrollments and outcomes such as timely completions and transitions to degree pathways. Currently, states and institutions have very little insight into who enters these programs and whether or not those individuals succeed in the labor market or continue their education and training. Illuminating the scale, scope and outcomes of noncredit programs in the state education ecosystem would benefit education policymakers as they strive to promote alignment with workforce needs and promote greater pathways to economic mobility for learners.
  • Establishing state financial support for quality noncredit coursework. In most states, the cost burden for noncredit programs is shouldered by individual students, even when that program is known to culminate in or be associated with skills or a credential that is highly valued in those states. Instead of expecting students to find and finance these valuable programs themselves, states should, once they’ve defined quality, share some of the cost. A select few states have funded high-quality noncredit programs through state grant programs like the MJ Foster Promise Program in Louisiana and FastForward in Virginia. Even fewer, like Maryland, have more permanently committed to fund noncredit programs through their state funding formula for higher education. It’s worth noting that if a bill that funds short-term Pell is ever successful, these states and their institutions will be in a strong position to prove eligibility for federal dollars because the data and quality control systems for noncredit programs have already been put in place.

Noncredit students are a large and growing population that state education leaders can no longer afford to overlook. There is much opportunity for innovation and scale as campuses work to build more seamless transitions from noncredit programs to credit-bearing opportunities. ESG is partnering with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the Progressive Policy Institute to support six states (Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Texas and Virginia) in implementing many of these policy actions over two years.

We are hopeful that these states will serve as exemplars to those seeking to build greater connections between higher education and the workforce, and vice versa. Building better connections between noncredit and credit initiatives has the potential to be a win for students, higher education institutions and local economies alike.

Kenyatta Lovett is a principal at Education Strategy Group, a consulting firm focused on areas including adult learners, nondegree credentials, postsecondary transitions and attainment, work-based learning, and pathways to work.



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