Woman in glasses studying.
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Many people have long viewed education and training that don’t count for college credit as moneymaking services that colleges and universities provide outside of their ivory walls.

You can find these courses in the back alleys and hovels of the higher education hierarchy. College and university leaders stride by, often content to glimpse noncredit-bearing courses and programs from the corners of their eyes.

But it is past time they give these courses and programs greater weight, and to make this a reality, we need to know more.  A lot more.

From what we know, noncredit courses and programs are focused mainly on preparing students for jobs.  They can help adults demonstrate knowledge and skills required by local employers. Some serve workforce needs by allowing colleges to align new offerings to meet the shifting labor market demand of local businesses and industries. And others provide learning adults can apply towards college degrees or short-term credentials.

College leaders, and those who make policies that affect students, are not even sure of the extent of noncredit education and training. That’s because the federal government has never bothered to collect data about it systematically.

Last fall, RTI International, a nonprofit research institute that does work on behalf of the federal government, hosted a technical review panel. The panel’s purpose was to discuss opportunities for improving the usefulness of federal education data. On the table was a proposal to collect more information about noncredit enrollment and activities while also taking into account the burden on institutions that must regularly report to the U.S. Department of Education.

For the uninitiated, IPEDS is the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System run by the National Center for Education Statistics, a unit within the Education Department. IPEDS is the primary source for information about U.S. colleges, universities, and technical and vocational institutions; its existence allows us to make informed decisions on behalf of today’s students.

In my new role with Lumina Foundation, I have offered comments on the technical review panel summary.  Here’s what stands out to me:

  1. First, it is far beyond time to take action.  Unresolved concerns from the field have been at the forefront of data conversations since panel No. 22 met in March 2008. Put another way: this discussion took place 13 years ago, and nothing has happened.  In federal time, that’s 39 review panels ago.
  2. Second, noncredit courses should be situated within program categories. IPEDS does not have a definition for “noncredit activity.” It does define a “noncredit course.” By failing to do so, it requires people using IPEDS data to “map backward” from courses to programs to figure out what might be going on. This is an approach different than is taken for credit-bearing courses, which are easier to learn about because colleges situate them within clearly defined programs when reporting. For comparability and improved decision-making, the government should require reporting of noncredit activities in the same ways that it requires colleges to describe activities that result in academic credit. After all, learning is learning.
  3. Third, the benefits of collecting the races, ethnicities, and genders of instructional staff far outweigh the burdens. Students should have opportunities to learn from and with faculty members and instructors who bring a range of life and professional experiences to the coursework. The research is clear that students benefit from encountering diversity in their learning environments.  For example, when faculty composition changes to resemble students at a community college, disparities in performance closed, with more students remaining at the college and finishing degrees.

The COVID pandemic has highlighted a dire need to help Americans train—and retrain—for today’s jobs. It is imperative that we take a moment to look at noncredit courses and programs directly. We need to understand better what these courses can contribute to individual social mobility and our collective prosperity.

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