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A woman in a suit jacket with a whiteboard stands in front of a group of four students wearing yellow vests and construction hats.

New research explores how community colleges develop and run noncredit programs.

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The Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University has released a series of reports that take a closer look at how community colleges design and ensure the quality of their noncredit programs.

The three reports, two of which were released this summer, include a survey of noncredit students at two community colleges, a deep dive into noncredit programs at four community colleges and an overview of the noncredit education landscape based on interviews with administrators at 29 community colleges.

The reports noted some positive trends: for example, programs generally balanced meeting local labor market needs with providing nationally applicable skills and credentials. But these programs also often lacked data on student outcomes and varied in the support services they offer, in part because of differences in their funding structures.

One report released by the center this summer focuses on a set of noncredit credential programs at four community colleges in different parts of the country: Harper College in Illinois, LaGuardia Community College in New York, Mt. San Antonio College in California and Northern Virginia Community College.

Administrators at each college chose two programs to be included in the study that they deemed high quality, that annually enroll 50 students or more and that serve low-income adults or prepare students for entry-level jobs. The programs represent a range of fields and credential types, including certificates issued by the colleges and industry or government issued certifications and licenses.

Michelle Van Noy, director of the Education and Employment Research Center, was among a group of experts who discussed the reports during a webcast Monday. She said in an interview that the goal of the report about the four colleges was to delve into noncredit education in a “granular” way, “at the program level, and really try to understand better the content, instruction, how the programs were built and how they operate to serve students” as these types of programs proliferate across the country and state lawmakers increasingly fund them to help fill workforce gaps.

Noncredit programs are also having a national spotlight moment as more Americans and policy makers question the value of a college degree, said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“Degrees are having a bad season,” Carnevale said. “They don’t deserve it—they are still the most powerful pathway to a good job by far. But the Republicans think they’re too woke, the public thinks they’re too expensive, and so training becomes a natural alternative.”

The more popular these programs grow, the more important quality assurance is, said Lindsey Reichlin Cruse, senior fellow for postsecondary education at the National Skills Coalition, a research and advocacy organization focused on workforce training.

“This growing interest and take-up of short-term program options means that more and more people are looking to them for solutions to their careers or economic mobility,” Reichlin Cruse said. “And we have a duty to make sure that these are really leading to the outcomes that folks are looking for, that they’re not sinking time or resources into programs that don’t actually help them achieve their goals.”

The report found some positive trends. Notably, the noncredit programs were often designed with employer input to prepare students for local jobs, while also preparing them for national certifications. And programs preparing students for specific exams often embedded valuable job skills outside the tests into their curricula. For example, the real estate program at Harper College preps students for the licensing exam for state real estate brokers but also requires them to do practical real estate case scenario exercises as part of the coursework.

Instructors also frequently had past and present industry experience, the report noted. The noncredit instructors interviewed, who taught in industry certificate and license programs, all spent at least four years working in relevant fields and held the credentials they teach. Many had more than 10 years of industry experience, and some also continued to work in industry part-time.

The report also found some troubling trends. The noncredit programs studied rarely included pathways for students to enroll in credit-bearing programs, though there were exceptions, such as the noncredit medical billing program at LaGuardia, where students could earn up to nine credits toward an associate degree in business technologies. And programs on a whole lacked comprehensive data on student completion rates and job outcomes.

Van Noy said colleges lack data because they don’t generally ask noncredit students a lot of demographic questions when they enroll, to make registering extra easy and accessible, and state policies are inconsistent about requiring colleges to report noncredit student success outcomes.

Brianne McDonough, director of career and learning pathways at Jobs for the Future, an organization focused on helping college and workforce leaders create equitable economic outcomes for students, said there can also be such a wide breadth of programs under the noncredit umbrella that it’s hard to have a complete and nuanced data picture, with English as a second language courses, police academies, senior education classes and workforce training programs all falling under the same term.

By and large, “we’re ill equipped to be able to do that in a way that is comprehensive and can be brought to scale. Our systems are not enabled to do that on an institutional level or state level,” she said.

The report found that the funding sources for noncredit programs varied widely based on state policy, and those funding streams influenced the design of the programs, including what data they collected and what supports they offered. For example, Northern Virginia Community College receives funding for noncredit programs from FastForward, a statewide initiative launched in 2016 that subsidizes short-term workforce training programs. This caused the college to cut back on some of its community-oriented course offerings in favor of workforce-focused programs eligible for the funding, according to the report. FastForward also requires colleges to report course completions and exam results, so Northern Virginia tracks these metrics.

In contrast, New York doesn’t offer state formula funding for noncredit workforce programs, so LaGuardia Community College relies on a diverse array of funding sources to sustain these programs, including tuition dollars and city and foundation grants, the report noted. LaGuardia administrators said tuition-funded programs tend to be more sparsely staffed than grant-funded programs, which are more likely to have funding for employees to advise students or track their success outcomes.

The report found programs also varied in the supports they offered students. For example, Mt. San Antonio College had state funding and, as a result, two full-time and two part-time academic counselors for students in short-term vocational programs. However, California also prohibits community colleges from charging students for noncredit programs, but that prevents them from taking advantage of certain fee-based services such as campus health centers. LaGuardia offers noncredit students a suite of services, including access to the food pantry, a wellness center, daycare, housing assistance and social workers to connect students with academic supports and other services.

Reichlin Cruse said student supports are an important feature of a quality program, given who these students are and their goals for enrolling.

Anecdotally, “the population of students that are getting noncredit education are likely going to be in lower-wage employment or have lower incomes,” she said. “They’re going to have family responsibilities. They’re going to have basic needs insecurity. They are experiencing the same if not exacerbated challenges to educational opportunity and career opportunity that students on the credit side of the house might be facing, and yet they are often excluded … from receiving the types of supportive services that we know can help people persist in completing college programs.”

Another report published by the center this summer surveyed students at Northern Virginia Community College and Mt. San Antonio College across noncredit programs, and while response rates were low—159 and 182 students respectively—the students who did respond and shared their demographics were disproportionately adult learners. The largest group was between the ages of 36 and 50. Respondents most commonly enrolled in hopes of switching careers or getting new jobs, and their most reported challenges in their programs were affordability and family responsibilities.

Reichlin said state lawmakers and college leaders are going to have to communicate and work together to develop quality frameworks that ensure these programs best serve students.

Van Noy said these programs, and the students participating in them, are starting to get more attention. States have begun to collect data on them, and some employers are moving to skills-based hiring and pledging to hire employees without traditional college degrees.

“I think those trends are coming together,” she said. There’s growing interest in “more research in this area … There’s a lot of money being invested in this. It’s important to know what it’s leading to.”

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