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Lee Gardner has an uncommonly good piece in the Chronicle this week about noncredit programs at community colleges. It’s worth the read. Rather than repeating its points, I’ll offer some commentary.

Gardner makes a mistake of overstatement at one point when he claims that noncredit programs aren’t eligible for financial aid. Most aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, although a few denominated in “clock hours” (don’t ask) are. Some states also offer support—either programmatic or attached to the student—for certain noncredit workforce programs. The most common case, unmentioned in the piece, is grant support. Without grants—either public or private—most adult basic education courses (English as a second language, GED, adult literacy) couldn’t happen.

In states that don’t offer support for it, noncredit offerings are supposed to be either self-supporting or profitable. That’s why noncredit ESL sections, for example, are typically offered in much lower numbers than local demand would justify, leading to waiting lists. If they had more funding, many colleges would happily offer more ESL.

The division between credit-bearing ESL and noncredit ESL is a much larger and more complicated issue for another day.

Gardner notes correctly that most states have much more robust data collection on credit programs than on noncredit. It isn’t entirely barren, though; most grants have data-reporting requirements, so most grant-funded programs should already have some records. That said, record keeping will necessarily be much more complex in the noncredit world because records aren’t tied to the credit hour or the academic semester. From the standpoint of a working adult, that’s a feature, not a bug; it allows noncredit programs to run on whatever calendars make sense locally. That’s why it’s easier to run competency-based programs on the noncredit side. If you aren’t using the credit hour anyway, then breaking away from it is easier. But when the only common denominator is financial, building a uniform record-keeping system around student success will take some work.

The real strength of Gardner’s piece for me is in looking at the second level of data that often goes unreported. The story of the C.N.A. program whose graduates lasted an average of less than six months on the job before leaving for better pay rang true. What sometimes looks like an absence of trained people is often, in fact, an absence of reasonable pay and/or working conditions. To the extent that certain short-term training programs inadvertently allow employers to get away with terrible behavior, good data could help build the argument for redirecting resources in more useful directions. A simpleminded equation of “more graduates = better” ignores the reality of the job market. It defeats the purpose. But gathering data like those and reading them correctly requires a willingness to tell a story that flies in the face of the current political culture.

Whether political leaders are willing to hold private employers accountable remains to be seen.

The single greatest surprise for me around noncredit programs is the number of people—both students and the general public—who don’t understand the distinction between credit and noncredit. Not too long ago, someone pointedly asked me why my college didn’t award transfer credit for students in a program that their school offered. When I responded, “We don’t award credit to our own students, either,” she was at a loss. The issue wasn’t disparate treatment; the issue was that noncredit programs don’t award credit. I have had variations on that conversation with state officials, education leaders and parents.

To the extent that there’s a unit of exchange between noncredit and credit, it’s usually in the form of third-party, industry-recognized credentials. That can be a ServSafe certification, a C.N.A. certificate, an ASE certification or the like. In turn, those certifications often either bring recognition for credit or serve as prerequisites for credit. Equity-minded grants sometimes cover the costs of exams for low-income students in cases like those, which is terrific. Of course, many students who pursue those credentials already have degrees and are either changing careers or advancing in their careers, so they may see academic credit as being beside the point.

All of that said, I really have to recommend the article itself. It gets some key questions right and does it in a clear and accessible way. We need to start taking the issues with noncredit programs seriously.

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