Noncredit Research Collaborative

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With rapid technological advances, the U.S. labor market exhibits a growing need for more frequent and ongoing skill development. Community college noncredit career and technical education (CTE) programs that allow students to complete workforce training and earn credentials play an essential role in providing workers with the skills they need to compete for jobs in high-demand fields. Yet, there is a dearth of research on these programs because noncredit students are typically not included in state and national postsecondary datasets. In this guest blog for CTE Month, researchers Di Xu, Benjamin Castleman, and Betsy Tessler discuss their IES-funded exploration study in which they build on a long-standing research partnership with the Virginia Community College System and leverage a variety of data sources to investigate the Commonwealth’s FastForward programs. These programs are noncredit CTE programs designed to lead to an industry-recognized credential in one of several high-demand fields identified by the Virginia Workforce Board.

Across the country, as technology continues to advance rapidly, the labor market exhibits a growing need for workers who receive frequent and ongoing skill development. Employers in many fields struggle to find adequately trained workers to meet their needs. Community college noncredit career and technical education (CTE) programs are an important contributor to skill and workforce development and help to close this “skills gap.”

This brief summarizes early findings from a study of FastForward, which uses a pay-for-performance model to fund noncredit CTE programs at the 23 colleges in the Virginia Community College System. FastForward aims to increase the supply of workers who receive credentials for high-demand occupations in Virginia. The FastForward study is focused on identifying institutional and programmatic factors that may influence learners’ academic and labor market outcomes. This brief presents findings on the different approaches used by colleges and programs to deliver training, student and staff experiences in these CTE programs, and students’ academic and labor market outcomes.

This report presents initial findings from a comprehensive study being undertaken to examine noncredit CTE programs offered within the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). In 2016, the Virginia legislature, through HB66, passed legislation to expand participation in community college noncredit CTE programs. These programs are commonly known in Virginia as “FastForward” programs. A key component of this initiative is an innovative funding mechanism, the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant (WCG), which is a cost-sharing pay-for-performance model (described in more detail below). The programs covered under this initiative are those that lead to an industry-recognized credential in a high-demand field; our analyses focus on this subset of eligible “FastForward programs.”

Today, more than two-thirds of US adults considering further education report that they prefer a non-degree option—up from about one-half prior to the pandemic. With growing interest and investment in opportunities for short-term flexible options to prepare individuals for the workforce, it is essential to cultivate a better understanding of noncredit education and non-degree credentials. Despite the importance of this information, multiple analyses have shown that only about three-quarters of states collect data on their noncredit programming.

Furthermore, state-level data collection on non-degree credentials (such as certificates, certifications, licensure, badges, and microcredentials) varies widely and is still under development in many locations.

Key findings on noncredit offerings and enrollment include the following:

  • Occupational training represented around 80 percent of all noncredit offerings and enrollments in VCCS.
  • Females represented higher enrollments in noncredit education overall (54% vs. 39%), as well as in each specific type of noncredit education (e.g., occupational training, pre-college), with the largest gender gap in pre-college (66% vs. 28%).
  • When removing those for whom sex/gender data were missing, females comprised 58 percent of noncredit enrollments. By comparison, females comprised 57 percent of for-credit community college students in Virginia, thus showing near equal representation.
  • The strong focus on occupational training among noncredit enrollees was consistent in each gender and racial subgroup.
  • Approximately 7 percent of noncredit enrollees in 2020–2021 did not have a reported sex/gender in the state data system, and more than two-thirds had missing values for race on average. The level of missingness for race was especially high for pre-college, where more than 90 percent of the enrollees were missing race information. There are many potential reasons for missingness, including a simplified admission process for noncredit training that might not require students to report demographics and contract training designed for employers who may not provide demographics for all participants.
  • With the majority of enrollments not having a specified race in the system, it is difficult to draw conclusions on enrollment patterns. However, for those records including race, the enrollments seemed to be somewhat similar to credit enrollments in the VCCS, where 70 percent of credit enrollees were White, 15 percent Black, 7 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent Asian.

This report follows a series of state-level reports on Iowa, Louisiana, and Virginia that explored the noncredit data infrastructure and presented descriptive analyses of data at the course/program level for each individual state.

The findings presented in each of these reports, including the current report that synthesizes results across the three states, were derived through a collaborative approach involving leaders from all three partner states. Research team members worked closely with state leaders to identify data elements pertaining to community college noncredit offerings at the course/program level, which is our unit of analysis for this project, captured at the state level. Further, the research team gathered information on the policy context for noncredit offerings, including state-level data collection that frame what data are available and why. By examining the data elements on noncredit education available in each state, the research team compared these findings both to develop a set of common operational definitions and data inventory as well as to better understand the similarities and differences in noncredit programming and data availability.

Objective: This study extends prior work on a distortion in IPEDS data brought about by the exclusion of noncredit enrollments. This affects a commonly used metric, expenditures per FTE student. The problem is that expenditures for noncredit courses are reported to IPEDS but the enrollments are not. Previous research covered 4 states— New York, New Jersey, California, and North Carolina. The current study adds four more states—Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Method: Data on noncredit enrollments were made available from system offices in our four new states. In addition, discussions were held on both the system and the campus level to verify the data and assumptions. Data were merged with existing IPEDS data at the campus and state level and were adjusted to account for noncredit enrollments.

Results: Evidence supports the argument that IPEDS data overestimates the resources that community colleges have to spend on each student, although distortions vary greatly between states and among colleges in the same state.