By Frank Swanzy Essien, Jr., Michelle Van Noy, and Katherine Hughes

Noncredit workforce programs are on the front lines of serving our nation’s need for new skills. But these programs vary widely—raising the question of how to ensure positive results for 5 million students who enroll in these courses every year to build better careers and lives.

Noncredit courses are increasingly popular at community colleges and technical school—a trend that grew during the pandemic—because they respond to fast-changing job demands and can lead to industry certifications and licenses, often in just a few months. But since these programs aren’t under the oversight of accreditation agencies, they don’t follow established quality processes and standards. So it’s hard to track their value and ensure that they keep their promises to students.

To better understand noncredit education and where it’s headed, Lumina Foundation partnered with the Rutgers Education and Employment Research Center to study these programs. The research included interviews with leaders at 30 U.S. colleges and found several emerging strategies. Our issue brief on this shifting environment found:

  • Most colleges offer programs closely linked to today’s job opportunities so learners can move quickly into new or better jobs. These programs often have catchy names, such as “Fast Track” (Savannah Technical College in Georgia) and “Quick Jobs” (Greenville Technical College in South Carolina).
  • Many colleges see the value in connecting noncredit and credit programs for students who may eventually want to earn a degree, but these pathways are still being developed.
  • It’s crucial to add support and advisors for noncredit students. Few colleges offer this, highlighting an important area for growth.
  • Without set standards, college leaders work to ensure quality in other ways. All base their programs on labor market data, and some also use employment outcomes data. Others see industry certifications as a valuable marker of quality. And those who receive state funding often undergo state reviews.
  • Colleges offering these programs use various organizational models, including integrated noncredit and credit divisions, and partnerships with other colleges. New approaches are continually emerging.

A positive shift

We also found a positive shift as some colleges focus their noncredit programs on the needs of low-income and lower-skilled adults. Florida’s Broward College offers basic skills education combined with workforce training while Glendale Community College near Los Angeles helps immigrant students succeed in finding their first jobs.

Given the urgent needs of these students, it’s even more essential to improve quality systems and add support services. Our issue brief highlights trends and offers examples and guidelines. But we aren’t done yet. A research team, co-led by Michelle Van Noy of Rutgers University and Katherine Hughes of EdWordian, will further examine questions about quality and how students are navigating their many noncredit options.

[Frank Swanzy Essien Jr. is Strategy Officer for Research at Lumina Foundation, a private, independent foundation that works for racial equity while helping all Americans learn beyond high school. Michelle Van Noy, Ph.D., is Director of the Education and Employment Research Center at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. Katherine Hughes, Ph.D., is principal at EdWordian and a principal researcher with the American Institutes for Research.]

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