An Explainer: Non-degree vs Non-credit programs

Blog Post
Photo by heylagostechie on Unsplash
March 24, 2021

Over the past decade, millions of Americans without a college degree emerged from the Great Recession in jobs that were low-wage, insecure, and lacked benefits like paid leave. COVID-19 has made matters worse. Unemployment for someone with only a high school diploma or some college experience is almost twice that of a person with a bachelor's degree or higher. It is imperative that we give people without a degree access to a postsecondary education that will connect them to a high quality job.

To that end, we are undertaking a project looking at what makes a high quality non-degree program. Our definition is inclusive of any career education program above the high school diploma and below the associate’s degree. One challenge we have observed is a misunderstanding of what non-degree programs are.

Across the board, many stakeholders consistently confuse and conflate “non-credit” and “non-degree”.

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However, many of those credentials offered by third parties require or recommend participants take classes from colleges before they sit for a licensure or certification assessment. Colleges offer a wide range of credentials across an incredible range of disciplines. Because of this vast array of offerings and the diversity how colleges operate, it can be very difficult to settle on a shared definition of terms for programs.

We can start with the easiest terms: degrees. Colleges offer associate and bachelor degrees that generally take two or four years to complete for full time students. Degrees are solidly for-credit and eligible for federal financial aid (assuming the college is financial aid eligible). And this is where the clarity pretty much ends.

Colleges offer many types of programs that do not result in degrees. For instance, they offer certificates, diplomas, and apprenticeships.

All of these programs are non-degree but many of them are still offered for college credit.

Even a program, such as a bootcamp, can result in a student earning college credit.

Many manufacturing certificates and diplomas are offered for-credit, are long enough to be financial aid eligible, and “stack” to a degree. If a student takes these programs they won't be awarded a degree but with just a few more classes they can earn that next credential.

At the same time, colleges--both two-year and four-year--offer many programs not for college credit.

At four-year colleges these programs are generally offered through extension schools and are for personal enrichment or some kind of professional certification like project management.

At community colleges, a certificate that may be offered for credit at one school may sit on the non-credit side of another. Non-credit community college programs can include personal enrichment classes, customized training for employers, English as a second language classes, adult basic education, and any program that didn’t go through the process to be for-credit.

One of the benefits of not-for-credit education is that it can be more nimble to the demands of employers. These programs mean that a student generally needs to take some kind of assessment to get credit towards a degree. Many colleges have experimented with prior learning assessment and other bridges to help close that divide.

Non-credit programs at community colleges are generally funded in a very different way from for-credit programs. Non-credit programs usually aren’t eligible for federal or state financial aid and many times do not receive subsidies from the state government based on enrollment. Thus, many of these programs are self funded which means that students or employers pay the entire cost with no government assistance.

Non-degree programs encompass a large portion of the programs that community colleges provide. They include programs not offered for college credit but they also include plenty of for-credit programs that do not end in a degree. We are studying high quality programs that end in good jobs across the credit divide.

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