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The Non-Credit Information Gap

Community College Insights
June 2, 2023

Community colleges play a pivotal role in education and in workforce and economic development. However, with the data currently available, it is difficult to know exactly how many students are enrolled in community college programs.

According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), there were over 3 million students enrolled at public community colleges in 2021, compared to 7.6 million students enrolled at public four-year institutions and a little over 4 million enrolled at private four-year schools. Based on these figures, community colleges appear to educate notably fewer students than their four-year counterparts. But the 3 million student figure doesn't include any non-credit students and therefore significantly undercounts the total number of students served at community colleges.

Credit vs. Non-credit

It is widely known that community colleges provide students an opportunity to gain lower-cost, local coursework that can be used to transfer to a four-year institution and that many students are drawn to community colleges for technical training in fields like welding and plumbing.

What is not widely understood is the difference between credit and non-credit programs at community colleges. While credit programs are typically two-year academic programs that lead to an associate degree, or one- to two-year certificate programs, non-credit programs provide students an opportunity to obtain shorter-term training in fields such as phlebotomy, truck driving, and information technology. Much of the growth occurring in community college enrollment is happening in the non-credit space, as students and employers seek faster paths to job-ready skills.

The Data Gap

We know little about these students because they are not counted in the same way we count traditional, for-credit students. Total enrollment numbers, like the 3 million figure above, typically do not include non-credit students. At many community colleges, there are now more students in their non-credit programs than in credit programs, and enrollment continues to shift away from traditional programs and toward shorter-term certificates and credentials. This movement indicates that both students and employers value these programs.

To properly analyze the effectiveness of non-credit programs and student success, it is vital to learn more about the students enrolled. The Richmond Fed's Fifth District Survey of Community College Outcomes is working to bridge this gap by providing data on non-credit students in the Fifth Federal Reserve District. Learn more about our work on community colleges here.

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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