Noncredit Research Collaborative

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Noncredit education and non-degree credentials (NDCs) are increasingly valued by students and policymakers. Yet data in this field is scarce and findings on student
outcomes are limited and difficult to interpret and compare. This study reviews a core group of articles on noncredit and NDC outcomes, focusing on completion, wages, and employment.

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.

Community colleges are a major source of non-degree credentials (NDCs) through their noncredit workforce education offerings. NDCs include certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, and micro-redentials (Credential Engine, 2019). Colleges award certificates and also prepare students to obtain certifications and licensure. Noncredit education has long been a part of community colleges across the nation, with enrollment levels almost matching credit enrollments (AACC, 2021; Jacoby, 2021). Credentials earned in noncredit programs are gaining increasing attention for their potential to provide swift access to career opportunities. Some have argued that noncredit programs may also expand the accessibility of higher education for students who have not attended college before and need shorter and more flexible postsecondary opportunities (Grubb, Badway, & Bell, 2003; Van Noy et al., 2008; D’Amico et al., 2019). Since the pandemic, increasing numbers of adults nationally report they prefer non-degree pathways that can be completed quickly to degree programs (Strada, 2020; Cengage, 2022). At the same time, a rising number of states have become interested in supporting NDCs. In this context, it is imperative to better understand if these programs and credentials are a worthwhile investment of time and resources.

Millions of students enroll in community colleges noncredit programs every year—most in occupational training—but there are few large-scale studies of their effectiveness in increasing students’ employment opportunities and earnings. In this study, we applied individual fixed effects models to state longitudinal administrative data from Texas to estimate the labor market returns to community college noncredit occupational education. We find a modest but statistically significant increase in average quarterly earnings exceeding $500 per quarter (2019 dollars). Returns vary by duration of training, field of study, and number of training spells. Our findings speak to ongoing national policy debates about expansion of Pell Grant eligibility to include some community college noncredit programs, as well numerous state efforts to increase workforce readiness.

We leverage administrative data on over 1.6 million students who initially enrolled in noncredit or for-credit programs at Texas community colleges between academic years 2013-14 and 2017-18. We address the following research questions: who enrolls in noncredit education in Texas? How are noncredit enrollees different from for-credit students? What types of courses do noncredit students take? What kinds of enrollment behaviors and academic outcomes do noncredit students experience? Do noncredit students later participate in for-credit programs of study?

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.

Community college noncredit education is a substantial yet sorely understudied segment of American higher education, enrolling millions of students each year, many in occupational courses. There is growing interest in understanding the extent to which noncredit programs support students’ future educational attainment and workforce preparation, but data limitations at the state and national levels have inhibited intensive research. In this study, we present the most exhaustive empirical portrait of community college noncredit education to date. Using administrative data on millions of community college students from Iowa, California, Texas, Louisiana, and Indiana, we investigate who enrolls in noncredit education, the types of courses they take, and the academic and employment outcomes they experience. Our results both support and temper growing enthusiasm about the contributions of noncredit education to students’ academic and employment goals. Our study offers new and timely insights into community college noncredit education, addressing pressing policy questions regarding articulation between noncredit and for-credit education, the labor market value of noncredit education, and the collection of data on noncredit education.