New On-Ramps to Student Success Begin with Transitions from Non-Credit Programs

written by Diane Bosak, ATD Vice President for Workforce Development, and Meredith Hatch, ATD Senior Associate Director for Workforce and Academic Alignment

Helping students transition from programs that offer credentials based on non-credit courses to programs created with credit-bearing courses is an opportunity for colleges to build additional on- ramps to student success. Community colleges’ non-credit programs, also called continuing education or workforce programs, provide students the education and training they often need to find a better job right away. With some additional planning, colleges can also help students develop a clearer understanding of career opportunities available to them if they follow a pathway that leads through credit-bearing courses to a degree beyond the initial credential.

Achieving the Dream recently worked with seven colleges in the Northeast Resiliency Consortium* to create pathways from noncredit to credit programs, among other activities. With support from a US Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training (TAACCCT) grant, the colleges focused on narrowing skills gaps by developing stackable credentials for students preparing for employment in sectors that are critical to the resilience of communities: healthcare, information technology, and environmental technologies. Northeast Resiliency Consortium colleges developed 25 formal non-credit to credit program pathways, building on-ramps to credit programs from non-credit, shorter term programs. Each college developed formal non-credit to credit links using strategies including matriculation, prior learning assessment (PLA), and third-party certification. These strategies, along with case studies on how colleges developed pathways and the outcomes of these pathways, are described in the brief Creating Opportunity for All: Building Pathways from Continuing Education to Credit Programs (Derek V. Price and Wendy Sedlak, 2018). As noted in the brief, “a higher percentage of students enrolled in continuing education to credit pathways banked or earned credits, transitioned to credit-based programs, and gained and were retained in employment than a matched comparison group who did not enroll in these pathways.”

One promising approach to awarding credit to students who begin in noncredit programs and continue their education in credit-bearing programs can be called “matriculation only.” This approach decreases the burden on the student because it allows students to receive credit for their continuing education training after matriculating into an aligned credit-granting program at the institution.

The federal government is also encouraging efforts that rely on transitions from non-credit to credit programs and use competency-based approaches to move students toward credentials with higher labor market value. The results of projects completed by colleges with grants from U.S. Department of Labor’s TAACCCT program, emphasized the need for students to be guided in transitioning from non-credit to credit programs. The latest iterations of federal laws that guide adult learning and training, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Career Act, also stress the need for career pathways tied to labor market demands. The goals of the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technical Education (ATE), Pell demonstration pilots through the US Department of Education Federal Student Aid Experimental Sites Initiative, and apprenticeships require participating colleges to strengthen the links between non-credit courses and learning experiences and degrees. High quality credentials can be the key to economic mobility and family sustaining wages for many adult learners. But if these credentials are not linked to clearly defined career pathways, then individuals may continue to find it difficult to advance in the workplace.

Colleges should consider increasing opportunities for students to move seamlessly from non-credit to credit programs. Pathways with a student-centered focus should ensure the onus is not on students to make the transition. The non-credit to credit pathways should be clearly defined and articulated for students at the point of entry as well as through additional career advising. Colleges should work with employers to ensure they value the credentials and that the pathway can lead to career mobility as students earn additional credentials or a degree. Supports for all students, including workforce students, is also an essential component to the ongoing success of students moving along a pathway that connects non-credit programs to for-credit programs.   

There are challenges at the institutional level in designing flexible and innovative approaches for non-credit to credit pathways, but the skills and knowledge required by the rapidly changing job market create an urgency for colleges to move more quickly in this direction. Achieving the Dream has resources available to assist colleges. We also welcome the opportunity to learn more about what colleges may be doing to build new on-ramps to student success.

* Consortium colleges were Passaic County Community College, Atlantic Cape Community College, Bunker Hill Community College, Capital Community College, Housatonic Community College, Kingsborough Community College, and LaGuardia Community College located in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.

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