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The movement to align noncredit and credit programs

Date: Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Editor’s note: The Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Association of Community College Trustees and the state’s 15 community colleges have joined together to form a new alliance that seeks to address challenges within Iowa’s community college systems. The “Aligning Credit and Non-Credit for Equity” workshop is a part of this collaborative effort.

At community colleges in Iowa and across the country, the word alignment is in the air, signifying a need for change and better experiences for all students. Aligning short-term, non-credit courses with the college’s credit-based programming can provide more equitable opportunities for students and increase efficiencies overall, and education consultant Annie Phillips is making the case for this movement.

Phillips, an associate director at the consulting firm, Education Strategy Group, will be featured in an upcoming online workshop sponsored by the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees. Scheduled for March 28, this four-hour interactive session, titled “Aligning Credit and Non-Credit for Equity,” will highlight the importance of alignment between the non-credit and credit functions at a college and how this can lead to more equitable outcomes for all students. All Iowa community colleges, no matter where they are in the alignment process, are strongly encouraged to attend this free workshop. 

As part of Education Strategy Group, Phillips has worked with community colleges nationwide on aligning their non-credit and credit programs and has provided a framework for getting started through the firm’s recent 2020 report, “A More Unified Community College.”

The Iowa Department of Education recently sat down with Phillips to get a sneak peek at her upcoming workshop and learn more about her philosophies on aligning non-credit and credit programs.

One of the Education Strategy Group’s notable reports is titled, “A More Unified Community College.” How does establishing an alignment of non-credit and credit programs help provide a more unified community college?
Across the majority of community colleges in this country, a substantial divide exists between credit and non-credit programs. Differences could be anything from faculty, operations, data collection, enrollment processes, type of programming and so forth. All community colleges acknowledge a need for good, quality non-credit programming that leads to good jobs with family-sustaining wages. But is that always the case? If not, are there sufficient opportunities to help students in non-credit programs parlay their experience towards a degree or longer-term credential? Alignment of credit and non-credit programs creates the systems and services that not only provide greater options and pathways to a career but also makes it easier for the student to navigate that experience.

From what we’ve seen nationally, community colleges that have started to tackle the issue of alignment found that it was, of course, good for the students but also good for the efficiency of the college by reducing duplication of courses and processes. One college we spoke with audited their courses across non-credit and credit and found 90 percent duplication between what was offered for non-credit and what was offered for-credit. Sometimes, this duplication is good and intended to provide a diverse array of course options to meet the needs of a diverse student body. But sometimes, and too often, it is the result of divisions between non-credit and credit programs that compound to create, essentially, two colleges within a college. Duplication to this extent is difficult to justify and finding ways to create greater alignment, especially when it’s to the benefit of students, should be a priority for college leadership.

What are some additional benefits and supports provided to students when the programs are aligned? How do these things open pathways and encourage students to ladder from noncredit to credit programs to degrees?
There is a real and perceived stratification between students in non-credit programs and students in credit programs. So, the first and most important framing for this work is to treat all students as students. Advising is one area where we’ve seen tremendous progress for students in credit programs and very little for students in non-credit programs. Students in non-credit programs should get equal access to advisors, libraries, gyms, laptops and other resources that students in credit programs would typically receive. Aligned incentives are another way to support and encourage students as they      transition to credit programs. I’ve seen examples of colleges that provide free credits or small tuition grants to students if they transition to a credit program. This is a huge incentive for students to move towards a credit program, degree and, ultimately, a family-sustaining wage.

Basically, the culture of care so many colleges have worked to develop should be inclusive of students in non-credit programs.

Why do you think the idea of improving alignment between the two programs is gaining traction right now?
I think part of the traction is because of the moment, because of COVID. When the pandemic first hit, and so many people were displaced, there was a good deal of investment in strategies to enroll those individuals in short-term, non-credit training and get them the skills they need to quickly re-attach to the labor market. At the same time, many called into question the role these non-credit programs have played historically in diverting our community’s most vulnerable members, many of whom are those who were displaced by COVID, from higher levels of learning and the job opportunities that come as a result. I see merits to both positions, and alignment across non-credit and credit programs prioritizes the systems change needed to ensure we can have both short-term education and training to meet immediate needs, while also providing options for additional upskilling.

Other movements in education, such as short-term Pell grants and HEA (Higher Education Act) reauthorization, are also triggering this conversation. Leaders see the writing on the wall of policy changes that may make short-term education and training more of a priority in the future and want to be ready to best serve their students when those changes occur.

Has there been a notable success that you’ve seen with alignment thus far?
Although it is early in the process, we’ve seen a few notable examples of alignment starting to occur across the country. Prince George’s Community College in Maryland included non-credit programs as part of their larger guided pathways reform efforts at the college. As a result, much of how they’ve reformed program sequences and pathways have been inclusive of relevant non-credit programs. San Diego Community College District is a great example of a college that has prioritized the collection and usage of data to improve their programs and processes across non-credit and credit. With aligned data systems, they are able to measure the success of students who participate in non-credit programs and what proportion of those students move to credit programs. At Salt Lake Community College in Utah, they are providing financial incentives for students who transfer from non-credit to credit to incentivize progression to credit programs and remove financial barriers.

As with any change, the process for this transition can possibly seem overwhelming at first. What are some simple ways that community colleges can begin to align their non-credit and credit programs?
Take a look at the alignment framework and define the work. Our report, “A More Unified Community College,” can provide you with helpful information. It’s important to get an understanding of what your institution’s credit for prior learning policy looks like. Ask yourself questions about the support services that are provided to students in non-credit programs, and look meaningfully at how your faculty, on both sides, are collaborating. Those are the initial things you need to understand to get started. The work is worth it. You’ll see more students progressing.