Noncredit and Credit Basic Skills - A Provocative Balance

Basic Skills Committee Chair

Resolution 9.06 S10 seeks to inform faculty about “local course offering priorities for both credit and noncredit and… recommendations regarding classification of noncredit courses and programs that are meeting community needs.” Resolution 9.02 F11 calls to explore “the appropriate division of credit and noncredit basic skills classes” while also supporting “funding noncredit career development and college preparation classes at apportionment rates commensurate” with credit funding.

While the foci of these two resolutions are distinctly different, they both demonstrate that faculty need to be better informed about and advocate for a more effective balance in our course offerings and how those courses are funded. This very complex conversation is exacerbated by the repetition conversation and the conversations about access and equity.

If we started with a brand new slate and created a higher education model that would best meet our students’ needs, what would that model look like? Before beginning this discussion, we have to set aside two remarkably entrenched ideals. The first is the notion of funding student education at differing rates in community colleges, which promotes curricular decisions based on fiscal parameters. The second is our resistance to change because our livelihoods are very directly connected to the existing structures.

In a world of universal success, the educational pipeline gets smaller as one moves higher simply because students reach their end goals at varying points. Not everyone wants to earn a PhD, but a very large number of adults want to benefit from some professional training or earn a certificate or lower level degree. As learners progress upwards, they also become more sophisticated as learners and thus need different kinds of support. Additionally, the need to repeat courses declines—although there are some common hurdles like organic chemistry and calculus—because the students become increasingly more effective as learners. When students have become highly skilled learners, the likelihood of their success in credit courses and beyond goes up significantly.

The sequence of learning matters greatly, but in some ways it becomes less critical as one becomes more educated. This detail is particularly true in basic skills and lower division areas, where sequence and actual progress must be carefully monitored and matched. Furthermore, when an educational system must remain within finite fiscal boundaries, having underprepared students enter into courses negatively impacts not only their success but also the system by unnecessarily reducing our capacity to provide access, or at least to provide access that will reasonably lead to success.

Back to our clean slate; what if noncredit and credit FTES were funded at commensurate rates? We might consider reframing the context by using the terms “precredit” and “credit.” While many noncredit students do not see themselves as credit bound, ultimately the skills most noncredit students are gaining do increase their capacity to be successful at credit levels. The primary curricular relationship between noncredit and credit is that the former develops skills needed to think critically and the latter further develops existing critical thinking capacity. Thus the term “precredit” more accurately describes the pathway students are taking, or may eventually take, and avoids the “lower value” stigma associated with the term “noncredit.”

The present moment presents an important opportunity because we really do not have to change dramatically to achieve this model. We are already severely limiting the number of times students can repeat credit courses. Some of the noncredit funding has been raised to be closer to the credit levels. We are working to collect performance and progress information in both credit and noncredit areas, and we are using that information to better ourselves. Changes in the process for establishing prerequisites have increased our ability to implement course entry requirements that can ensure productive student learning as students move upwards into more complex subjects. Finally, we now have a formal set of system recommendations which in some ways capture elements of these ideas and may have the political potential to help us reach that perfect place if we are thoughtful about it.

The precredit to credit balance in the perfect community college should depend greatly on the community being served. However, given that only 51 districts offer noncredit, precredit skills-development needs clearly are not being met through noncredit offerings, most likely because of the differential funding rates. This issue becomes even clearer when we also consider the ratio of noncredit to credit offerings where noncredit is offered. We certainly cannot blame colleges for participating in this inequity of course offerings. From the financial standpoint, why do something for $10 dollars when you can do the same thing and earn $14?

However, from a curricular viewpoint one might question why we would grant credit to students for coursework that we specifically design to be at the pre-college credit level. We should therefore remove the negative fiscal incentive for this practice; if the resources to pay for all instructional levels were the same, if faculty were paid the same, and if district overhead and support services were funded comparably, the conversation would be very different. We would then be more free to have conversations about where open, unfettered access is most likely to generate the greatest amount of success and equity in that success.

The fact that we have different minimum qualifications for noncredit and credit faculty who all teach the same thing is telling. This issue also stems from the differential-funding culture that places more value on education as one moves higher. Yet the external forces who so frequently call for more success are unwilling to embrace the simple fact that the foundations for success are integrally tied to equity and access. We must prepare all seekers of education to be effective learners first because further education becomes irrelevant without those skills.

We cannot easily determine what success means for each of our students, and the definition evolves for each of them as they progress. But many students stop progressing after failing repeatedly because they are not successful as learners. Since equity is the opportunity for all students to succeed without undue disparity towards any group, the key component for ensuring equity is to make certain each student becomes a successful learner. If equitable success for all really is important to us, we must prioritize so that it occurs at the learning skills level. The fact that it currently does not is likely our primary inefficiency as a system given the number of students who stop progressing because they failed at some higher level.

The point of introducing these ideas is really aimed at the notion that when the California economy begins to improve, funding will increase. We should therefore prepare now by considering how we would prefer to reinstate that funding. Insanity has been characterized as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Is insanity the best we can do? Providing access and ensuring equity in the development of learning skills for every adult should be our highest priority, and we should begin the conversation now to determine the best ways to achieve this goal.