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The Rise of Non-Credit at Community Colleges: Why Might Institutions and Students Prefer This Path?

Community College Insights
July 21, 2023

Commentary on community colleges, including ours, frequently uses the terms "credit" and "non-credit" to categorize program offerings. But what is the difference between these two types of programs, and why does the difference matter?

Credit programs are made up of courses for which students earn credit hours. These credits are often transferable toward degree programs at other institutions and must meet certain criteria set by institutions, community college systems and accreditors. Completion of credit programs at community colleges typically results in the attainment of an associate degree or a credit-bearing certificate. Credit programs fall under the purview of state higher education commissions such as the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. All new credit degree programs, or significant changes to existing programs, require state commission approval following approval at the college level. In some cases, these changes or additions may also require approval from regional accreditation bodies.

Non-credit programs, on the other hand, provide students with contact hours instead of credit hours. Contact hours earned in non-credit programs are not generally transferable to other institutions. Contact hours may include classroom instruction, but often also include lab, shop or clinical hours. Students in these programs may attain a non-credit-bearing certificate or the contact hours needed to take a professional licensure exam. In addition, these programs tend to be focused on particular workforce skills and are short term, with very few lasting longer than a year. Non-credit programs vary from more traditional continuing education (such as baking or gardening) to credentials in high-demand areas such as a commercial driver's license, phlebotomy or welding. While four-year institutions primarily offer credit programs, community colleges offer a mix of credit and non-credit programs.

Non-Credit Programs Offer Distinct Advantages

The process of launching a new credit program is arduous. In some cases, it can take three years to get a new program started: one year to get it through the institution's curriculum process, one year to get it approved by the state education commission, and one year to get it approved by the accreditation body and make the program available for student enrollment. Schools must be very forward-thinking in order to have in-demand programs ready to be deployed.

Non-credit programs, on the other hand, can move from concept to enrollment quickly. The higher education commissions and accreditors do not control non-credit offerings, so an institution does not need approval beyond the community college system to launch a new non-credit program. As a result, community colleges can use non-credit offerings to respond quickly to changing workforce needs and local industry growth. Programs like readySC, used by South Carolina for economic development purposes to attract businesses to the state, utilize community colleges to provide training needed by companies moving to or expanding in the state. The programs designed by readySC are almost all non-credit, short-term programs that provide workers the exact skills needed for the job. In fact, it is common for community colleges to provide corporate training to employees at local businesses through their non-credit programs, ranging from safety to Microsoft Excel certification to leadership.

For students, completing a non-credit program in a specific field can facilitate a quick transition into the labor market. Non-credit programs also remove a barrier encountered by many credit students: general education requirements. Unlike non-credit programs, credit programs generally require students take general education courses in English and math. Passage rates for these classes are notoriously low at community colleges. At North Carolina community colleges, between 41 and 80 percent of community college students had passed general education English within their first three years of enrollment, and between 24 and 63 percent had passed math general education. Enrolling in a non-credit program can reduce delays and hurdles that general education requirements create.

Looking Ahead

Community colleges have reported to us that demand for non-credit programs continues to grow while interest in traditional credit programs, especially associate degree programs, is on the decline. However, non-credit programs generally receive lower funding at both the institution and student level. We have written previously about the funding differences between credit and non-credit programs, and you can find that discussion here. Non-credit students are also ineligible to use Pell Grants or federal student loans for educational expenses, so non-credit programs can be less accessible for some students.

What does this mean for the future of community colleges? There is much we don't know about non-credit students because their data is not reported to the federal government in the same way as credit student data (read more about that here). 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. We hope that learning more about non-credit students, and their successes, will provide institutions and policymakers important information to help them move forward.

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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