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

Noncredit courses are increasingly popular, with nearly half of all community college students enrolled in these quick, low-cost programs designed to sharpen skills. But are students—hoping for fast career gains—spending their time and money wisely?

To answer these questions, we asked what programs make up the landscape of noncredit education, the kinds of students who are served, and what “quality” means for the credentials earned. These credentials include certificates, industry certifications, licenses, apprenticeships, badges, and emerging micro-credentials. Some examples of career paths include IT technician, community health worker, or medical assistant.

Lumina Foundation, partnering with researchers at Rutgers University’s Education and Employment Research Center (EERC), conducted two parallel research projects, including a survey of students taking non-degree credential courses. The research found that these programs serve diverse learners seeking faster routes to upward mobility—yet the programs’ quality standards can be ill-defined with outcomes that aren’t measured.

Measuring quality

Unlike credit education, which relies on accreditation standards leading to degrees, community college noncredit education lacks a set of processes to ensure quality. So we turned to the EERC’s conceptual framework, which defines quality by credential design, competencies, market processes, and outcomes. We interviewed educators at four community colleges—Harper College in Illinois, LaGuardia Community College in New York, Mt. San Antonio College in California, and Northern Virginia Community College in Virginia—asking them for examples of high-quality non-degree credential programs. We looked at two programs at each college to see how they approach learning.

Here’s what we found about quality:

  • Job market relevance: An essential quality marker for noncredit programs is their relevance to well-paying, in-demand jobs. This includes making sure that the credentials convey the right skills for that market—which the colleges in our study did by using fresh labor market data and developing certificate programs in close partnership with employers to serve local and regional needs.
  • Stackability: Ensuring that noncredit programs can lead to further education pathways is essential for promoting equity and social mobility. Noncredit programs can be “stackable,” meaning that multiple noncredit programs can fit together to add to greater job opportunities. Further, noncredit programs can sometimes transfer to credit programs, counting toward a degree. But few of the programs we studied fully achieved this, leaving much more work to be done.
  • Instructors balancing theory and practice: The noncredit instructors we interviewed described their teaching approach as a combination of theory and practice, emphasizing practice-based learning of professional and technical skills. Programs leading to licensing or certification tests focused on test content, along with case studies, role-playing, and skills demonstrations. While the balance of theory and practice varied, most instructors said both are necessary for developing essential skills.
  • More resources, student support needed: Learners often opted for short, hybrid programs that tended to be low-cost or free, with minimal entry requirements. Unfortunately, many programs couldn’t afford to offer essential wraparound support. Colleges with funding dedicated to noncredit programs, such as from the state, were better able to offer counselors and other support staff. Noncredit programs currently receive no federal funding.

These and other elements—plus a dose of respect—are critical to defining, measuring, and improving non-degree credential programs. As policymakers consider offering more resources, more research and data are needed to understand this fast-growing landscape. The sooner we do, the better we’ll be able to help students navigate and fulfill these programs’ promise as pathways to prosperity.

[Frank Swanzy Essien Jr., Ph.D. 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. Read more about their research.]

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