Every adult student can benefit from noncredit education. Free education does not mean low quality, and it certainly does not mean one size fits all. San Diego College of Continuing Education (SDCCE) offers a model for successful, comprehensive noncredit education.
At SDCCE, students from all walks of life are reentering the workforce, preparing to enter good paying jobs or getting ready to transition to college through tuition-free noncredit certificate programs and classes. SDCCE serves large populations of students who are among the most vulnerable adult populations in the state, including first generation, low-income, formerly justice-involved, dreamers, military veterans, and underrepresented students. Noncredit education can make the difference between permanent housing insecurity or food insecurity and upward mobility and generational change. Many students achieve a high school diploma or career training certificate at SDCCE and then transition to a California community college.
Noncredit education is a valuable tool for workforce training, benefitting both students and industry. SDCCE’s free career training programs include areas within priority workforce sectors such as automotive, skilled and technical trades, business and accounting, digital media, information technology, healthcare, child development, clothing and textiles, culinary arts, and hospitality. Many middle-skills jobs require more education or training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. 39% (678,770) of the 1.7 million jobs (1,737,766) jobs in San Diego and Imperial Counties in 2020 were middle-skill.
Following the COVID-19 recession, and with attrition rates rising across manual labor industries, businesses are eager to hire skilled professionals as soon as possible. At SDCCE, classrooms mirror manual labor industries to look like an auto shop, welding yard, industrial kitchen, or hospital for a hands-on learning experience. Students also work in clinicals, pre-apprenticeships, and internships. After certification completion within four to eight months, students are ready for employment or can transition to college.
Stan Gerberg, 36, is an example of the success of noncredit career training programs. Gerberg enrolled in SDCCE’s automotive program after attending engineering classes at San Diego State University. He completed SDCCE’s auto technician certificate in nine months and since then has become a master technician for BMW and currently works for Audi San Diego.
In addition to helping students enter and advance in the workforce, noncredit education can help students learn English, earn their high school diplomas, and gain citizenship in the United States. Additional free courses at SDCCE include high school diploma/equivalency, English as a second language, and citizenship.
Noncredit students typically come from significantly more diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. They often require more specialized and extensive student services and supplemental financial support. SDCCE students face significant financial barriers, with 41% reporting an annual income of $2,999 or less, more than 50% below the federal poverty threshold. In addition to financial barriers, many SDCCE students face cultural challenges and language barriers as they assimilate in a country to which they came primarily as immigrants or refugees. In 2019, 24% percent of SDCCE students were non-U.S. citizens and thirty-one percent reported a main language other than English.
More than half of the population of 30,000 students at SDCCE identifies as immigrant based. Students with Hispanic and Latinx roots comprise about one-third of the institution’s population, the largest group of students served. Free English as a second language, citizenship, and high school diploma/equivalency courses are helping immigrants and refugees increase their earnings and apply for college. ESL classes are offered in person and online and teach conversation, pronunciation, reading, and grammar. Students can study general English, English and job search preparation, English and workplace communication, English and citizenship, and English for parents.
SDCCE prepares students to take part in the United States Naturalization Ceremony through a free citizenship program. Students focus on the development of English language skills and American history and government. Adult learners are prepared to complete the citizenship application, the citizenship history and government test, and the final US citizenship and immigration services interview.
The free high school diploma/equivalency program at SDCCE is designed for adult learners who have left the traditional education system or who never had the opportunity to pursue their diplomas. Students that need to finish as little as two credits or as many as two years of high school can enroll in the accelerated high school program at any time. They start classes at the beginning of a new six-week session. Each semester at SDCCE is broken into three six-week sessions. A traditional semester is 18 weeks, but that length seems to result in a higher attrition rate in adult education. On the other hand, students succeed because they like the structure of a definitive six weeks. They know when they will graduate. Additionally, SDCCE offers high school diploma/equivalency courses in Spanish.
Classes are offered at no cost to students, as SDCCE is one of the 116 colleges within the California Community Colleges system. Funding also comes through business and industry partnerships. Unlike students at colleges and universities, SDCCE students are not eligible for federal financial aid. Although classes are provided free, SDCCE understands large populations of enrolled students face basic needs barriers, which prevent them from being successful in the classroom. Without access to help, many students are unable to reach upward mobility.
Once enrolled at SDCCE, students have access to SDCCE CARES (Commitment to Accessible Resources for Educational Support), a comprehensive basic needs program designed to help students meet fundamental needs of food, housing, transportation, childcare, and mental wellness. Students are connected to accessible and timely resources to support them while they complete their educational goals. In addition to basic needs supports, scholarships and awards are offered to students through the SDCCE Foundation. Fundraising is supported through donations by faculty, staff, administrators, and community partnerships. Students are awarded scholarships and grants annually, many with plans to transition to a career or college following their studies at SDCCE based on academic merit, leadership, and service to the community. SDCCE students are also eligible for the San Diego Promise scholarship, which provides funding for two years of community college education, including book grants. SDCCE is the only noncredit college in the nation that provides pathways for adult students to enroll in a promise program.
The experience of Aurora Alvarez demonstrates how noncredit education serves immigrant and other diverse adult learner populations. Alvarez enrolled in ESL classes eight years ago at SDCCE after moving with her son to San Diego from Mexico. When Alvarez arrived in the United States, she was determined to learn English but never thought she would be able to pursue education again. Returning to the classroom more than 20 years later at SDCCE, Alvarez excelled in her studies, completing beginner and advanced levels of ESL and two business certificate programs. Alvarez was awarded a San Diego Promise scholarship, which she used to transition to San Diego City College.
Noncredit education is becoming a top choice among traditional colleges and universities for high school students, professionals returning to the workforce, and immigrants. To continue to demystify the narrative around noncredit education, colleges must act at every level. Increasing California Adult Education Program and Strong Workforce and Perkins funding is specifically critical to support noncredit program development and expansion.
While SDCCE is adequately transitioning students toward the workforce and college, more work needs to be done. Noncredit education can be included in guided pathways across high schools, colleges, and universities. Aligning noncredit education across educational segments creates opportunities for successful career exploration, transition, placement, and workforce training. Critical additional funding can be allocated toward basic needs, resources, and scholarships.