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Non-Credit Workforce Programs at Community Colleges

Regional Matters
February 22, 2024


Community colleges differ from four-year institutions in key ways, including how programs are distributed across credit and non-credit academic divisions. While nearly all enrolled students at four-year institutions are in for-credit programs, community college students are much more likely to be in non-credit programs, which are shorter in term and typically focus on skills and credentials that are tied to specific occupations.

A growing number of community college students are enrolled in non-credit programs across the Fifth District, but traditional data sources do not capture information on the scale of non-credit academic offerings, or the outcomes of the students enrolled. Data collected through the Richmond Fed's Survey of Community College Outcomes (SCCO) offer new information about enrollment in these programs.

The Challenge of Collecting Non-Credit Data

Non-credit workforce programs at community colleges do not require general education courses, such as English and math, and are typically much shorter in length. Instead of a degree, these programs result in a short-term certificate or an industry-recognized credential. For example, Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College (SWVCTC) offers non-credit programs such as short-term welding, commercial driver's license (CDL), phlebotomy, and emergency medical technician (EMT). In addition to these short-term, non-credit programs, SWVCTC also offers an extensive array of credit-bearing programs. These include all associate degree programs along with credit-bearing certificates in fields like medical coding, criminal justice, and early childhood education.

All higher education institutions — including community colleges — are required to annually report detailed data on for-credit programs and enrolled students to the federal government via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). This system does not collect any data on non-credit programs, or the students enrolled in them, which contributes to a significant information gap.

There are other issues related to collecting non-credit data as well. Years of outreach to community colleges has revealed complications with internal data collection systems, issues related to the lack of funding for non-credit programs, and difficulties related to defining what should and should not count as an academic program. For these reasons, collecting enrollment data on non-credit students to understand the full scale of these programs has been challenging.

A further complication is the difference in outcomes between non-credit programs and traditional for-credit programs where completion is measured by graduation and degree. In some cases — like COMPTIA certification via an information technology program — students can earn industry-recognized credentials from the school. But in other cases, students simply earn the contact hours necessary to sit for credential exams, such as a nursing aide program that qualifies them to take the CNA licensure exam. In these cases, community colleges may not receive data on which students received the credential. Without high-quality data on non-credit programs, this limits the ability to quantify these programs' value to students and institutions. These issues are well known, and there are efforts to improve both tracking credentials and having wage data available to community colleges in each of our Fifth District states.

What We're Learning About Non-Credit Enrollment in the Fifth District

Given the limitations in existing data, collecting information on non-credit students is a priority for the SCCO. While individual states are collecting some non-credit data internally, the SCCO instrument consistently measures these programs across states. The results from the 2023 SCCO extended pilot provide us insight into the students who are being served by non-credit programs at 63 community colleges across four states: Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

First, we learned that across all 63 colleges surveyed, there were 154,340 students enrolled in non-credit programs. The shares of non-credit enrollment vary significantly: At one small rural school in Maryland, 76.2 percent of enrollment is non-credit compared to just 8.8 percent at a school in West Virginia. Due to the data limitations, non-credit students are almost certainly undercounted, but even so, non-credit students make up an important part of the total number of students at community colleges across the Fifth District.

Evidence from the survey suggests that the well-documented gender gap in higher education is much smaller in non-credit enrollment compared to for-credit programs. According to the survey, 61 percent of for-credit students are female, and 39 percent are male. At the community colleges in the survey, during the 2021-2022 school year, 47.2 percent of non-credit students were male, and 52.7 percent were female. In fact, in South Carolina and West Virginia, male enrollment in non-credit programs is higher than female enrollment. Based on outreach across these states, we believe this is due to a combination of male student preference for shorter-term programs as well as a greater acceptance of shorter-term credentials in male-dominated fields.

Policy Matters

There is no doubt that state-level policy matters. Early on in our attempt to collect data on Fifth District non-credit students, we realized that the Maryland community colleges had much more comprehensive data than schools in other Fifth District states. This is not random: It's driven by the community college funding model in Maryland, which funds many high-demand, non-credit workforce programs at the same rate as credit programs. This funding, often called funding "at par," requires community colleges to collect essentially the same data on both credit and non-credit students (at least those enrolled in funded programs). It is also impacted by the fact that Maryland allows students to use the Maryland Promise community college scholarship for both credit and high-demand, non-credit programs. In other Fifth District states, the data on non-credit students range from somewhat comprehensive, to not comprehensive at all. Interestingly, all states have told us that this is a needed area of improvement, and there are efforts to enhance non-credit data collection that should improve these data in important ways going forward.

When we examined the share of residents aged 15 to 54 that were enrolled in non-credit programs across the states, it was evident that Maryland had a much larger share than other states, and we believe this is primarily driven by these policy differences.


Data and outreach indicate that student demand is shifting to shorter-term credentials. This may partially be due to strong labor markets and the desire of students to complete their academic programs as quickly as possible. In addition, employers are becoming more comfortable with accepting shorter-term credentials for many positions. Better data collection is key for non-credit programs to be optimized for employers, community colleges, and students.

Views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.

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