As the pandemic has wreaked economic upheaval and displaced millions of American workers, policy makers and the public have shown growing interest in short-term training and nondegree credentials as solutions to help people get back to work. At the same time, the national dialogue over systemic racism has renewed concerns about the role these nondegree programs have played in diverting those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color from higher levels of learning and the job opportunities that come as a result. The legitimate concern has emerged that the focus on short-term training for those who have been left most vulnerable by the pandemic could unintentionally exacerbate racial tracking in education.
This is where the conversation often turns to stackable credentials. In theory, credentials and coursework are “stacked” so that nondegree credentials clearly lead to a degree. Having a meaningful industry-recognized credential at the beginning of the stackable sequence allows students to develop skills and earn a credential that has salience in the marketplace so they can find much-needed work. Then, when the time comes to continue their education and take the next step in their career, those credentials can easily articulate — or stack — toward a higher-level certificate or degree. Stackability and portability can be key protections against the ill effects of tracking in nondegree programs.
But here’s the problem: many two-year institutions have erected a barrier between the noncredit and credit sides of their house, which makes stackable progression along pathways much more difficult to achieve. Let me explain.
At most community colleges across the country, a stark division exists between credit programs that lead to an associate’s or applied associate’s degree and noncredit, technical training programs that lead to an industry-aligned certificate or certification of value (not a degree). Despite operating within the same institution, distinctions between noncredit programs and credit programs in structure, educational approach, faculty, technology and student resources can compound to make programs often feel worlds apart. While there are reasons for the separation of programs, and some distinctions are beneficial, other differences are simply by default or arbitrary. And so the two systems often exist separately, causing potential content duplication, lack of communication, false hierarchies and missed opportunities to collaborate and build well-articulated stackable pathways.
The structural divide hinders access and opportunities for far too many students. While many students who start in noncredit programs have expressed a desire to transition and further their education, the percentage of those who actually progress to degree programs is low. That is particularly true among students of color. One study found that while Black students are roughly as likely as white students to earn short-term certificates, Black students are much more prone to end their education at this level, rather than pursue additional education. That occurs despite the fact that Black Americans receive the lowest wage premium on certificates when compared to all other demographic groups.
Five Key Elements
What can be done to change the current bifurcated system and the inequities it has fostered? It will take more than simply stacking noncredit certificates and certifications within degree programs. Rather, stackable credentials — credit and noncredit alike — must be incorporated into much larger improvement efforts that touch every corner of the community college infrastructure.
While alignment and integration are not easily achieved, some powerful examples can illustrate how it can be done. Over the last year, my organization has conducted detailed interviews and site visits with more than 50 community college leaders and policy experts who have begun the difficult work of bridging the gap between noncredit and credit divisions. The strategies and resources they have used, as well as detailed accounts of their approaches, have been captured in our new guide for institutions, systems and states looking to create more explicit pathways between noncredit and credit offerings.
Our research has not revealed any single institution that has achieved full alignment of noncredit and credit programs. Yet our conversations with experts and institutional leaders engaged in this work have resulted in the identification of five key elements of a new approach to bridging the divide.
No. 1: Ensure clear connections between noncredit credentials and relevant degree programs. Yes, embedding or stacking noncredit certificates within degree programs can create greater cohesion between the two divisions for students. The key is that the stackable credentials are intentionally designed, clearly communicated and bolstered by strong advising across noncredit and credit programs. In other words, the onus shouldn’t be on the students to figure it out on their own.
In one strong example of this approach, administrators at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio restructured their programs to be clustered into Centers of Excellence. Each center has mapped its noncredit credential offerings to applied associate’s degrees. The institution’s attunement to credentials of value has resulted in exponential growth of awarding 20,000 certificates in 2019, up from just 4,000 certificates five years earlier.
No. 2: Make noncredit programs creditworthy or credit-based. High-quality learning experiences in industry-focused noncredit programs, whether tied to a credential or not, should count for credit. Some programs award credit for learning when students transition into credit programs through the use of bridge tools, such as credit matrices, articulation agreements or equivalency agreements. Credit-based programs go through the process to become accredited while maintaining labor-market orientation, putting students on a direct pathway to an associate’s degree.
Workforce Solutions at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System has been offering almost all short-term, industry-focused training as traditional credit courses since 2001. In doing so, it has been able to better align what was formerly noncredit training with state funding mechanisms, which flow directly into credit-based programs, while remaining responsive to employers. With this infrastructure in place, now, when new training offerings are developed, faculty make a credit recommendation based on competencies already approved and can quickly gain credit approval.
No. 3: Remove barriers to transition. Institutions should make transitioning easy for students by reducing the number of required forms and processes, providing navigational assistance, and offering similar course schedules across programs. Transitioning should be as automatic as possible and can be incentivized with opportunities for scholarships or other funding.
When data at Austin Community College in Texas showed that few students historically transitioned from noncredit to credit programs, it focused on facilitating the transition. The college designed customized rapid re-employment workforce programs that articulate into earn-and-learn credit programs with the same employers, whereby employees continue their education while working in order to help them advance. Much like Salt Lake Community College in Utah, which offers an institutional promise program that covers any financial aid gap for students who transition from completing a noncredit credential into a degree program, Austin Community College also plans to launch a two-year scholarship to address financial barriers to progression.
No. 4: Serve all students equally. To make the student experience across noncredit and credit programs more equitable, institutions must address structural inequities that disadvantage students in noncredit programs over those in credit programs. Those inequalities include a lack of student services, funding or financial aid, or access to other supports such as the computer lab and counseling services.
To best serve all students and ensure they thrive and complete their education, students in noncredit programs at Monroe Community College in New York receive advising on par with those in degree programs. Its Economic and Workforce Development Center uses a high-touch case management approach to support students in noncredit programs in finding employment and managing course schedules. As a part of their alignment efforts, the center will be given authority to oversee career services for the entire institution. That means students not only in credit programs but also in noncredit programs will interface with workforce staff, have access to career-spanning pathway maps and are informed by the center’s nationally recognized data on labor market demands.
No. 5: Align departments and governance. Strong coordination across noncredit and credit departments is key in scaling and sustaining successful alignment. Colleges should consider organizing relevant noncredit and credit programs into the same department or establishing joint leadership. Achieving alignment might also require modifications to the institution’s overall curriculum development and design process.
For example, when Prince George’s Community College in Maryland established its new Teaching, Learning and Student Success division, it brought together credit programs, noncredit programs and student services under one division lead. While noncredit and credit programs remain distinct, they restructured themselves to improve coordination across all facets of the departments. Faculty from noncredit and credit programs began working together to analyze labor market data, plan new offerings, launch them in noncredit programs and expand them to credit programs. The effort encouraged the college to examine how it collects data, registers students and structures position descriptions to incorporate alignment.
Whether institutions are ready for it or not, a sizable number of learners are barreling toward noncredit programs in an effort to better their lives amid a global pandemic. They can’t afford to get lost in the chasm between noncredit and credit programs. They need clear opportunities to build their skills and stack their credentials, and that will require community colleges to make intentional efforts to address the structural barriers that stand in the way. Achieving this alignment won’t be easy, but it’s absolutely necessary to ensure equity and economic mobility.