The Reemergence of Noncredit in the California Community Colleges

Lassen College, ASCCC Noncredit Committee Chair
Glendale College, ASCCC Noncredit Committee

According to the website of the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges, “The California Community Colleges is the largest postsecondary education system in the nation.” In 2014-2015, the latest full year of data available on the Chancellor’s Office Datamart, the system served 2,317,934 students and generated 1,176,671.31 FTES. While little doubt exists that the system serves an incredible number of students, some might question whether the system and its individual colleges are serving all the students who need to be served. 

The Chancellor’s Office also notes that the “primary missions of the system are preparing students to transfer to four-year universities, workforce development and training, and basic skills and remedial education.” To those working within the system, this three-pronged focus is nothing new. But California community colleges are not in all cases truly serving all students seeking transfer, workforce training, or basic skills development.

As of 2014-2015, 94.2% of the 1,176,671.31 system FTES were credit, meaning that only 5.8% of system FTES were generated through noncredit (67,816.39). Noncredit has never been much more utilized; even at its peak in 2008-2009, noncredit only accounted for 7.5% of the system’s total FTES. An estimated 80,000 students were lost in noncredit during budget cuts, resulting in a loss of 31,142 noncredit FTES. Noncredit felt cuts more significantly because of the lower funding rate for noncredit: colleges felt less incentive to retain noncredit sections.

If the California community colleges desire to serve all who seek transfer, workforce training, or basic skills development, then a large majority of the system’s 113 colleges need to do more with noncredit.

Noncredit opens doors to students who may not otherwise consider attending a community college. Financial barriers are eliminated by the fact that zero unit courses carry no fees for students. Therefore, students do not need to navigate a complicated financial aid process to access a no cost education.

Noncredit courses also offer more flexibility and options than credit. Courses do not need to be structured around lab versus lecture hours and unit computations; courses can be written for the actual amount of time needed to accomplish outcomes, whether 3, 11, or 75 hours.  Noncredit courses can be offered with structured enrollment start dates and end dates like credit, or they can be offered in an open entry/open exit format that allows students an opportunity to start the day they show an interest in the course and leave whenever they accomplish the outcomes.

The flexibility in noncredit extends to the fact that students can repeat a class until all outcomes or educational goals are met. For a student struggling with basic math, the chance to take parts of a class over again before moving on to the next level or even while taking the next level can improve understanding and boost confidence.

Noncredit courses also work well in environments closer to and less intimidating to prospective students than community college campuses where credit courses are primarily taught. Elementary schools, adult schools, workplaces, and community-based locations are more accessible, more familiar, and more comfortable to noncredit students.

Although noncredit can start students on a path to transfer, workforce preparation, or basic skills, students can also accomplish very different educational goals. Noncredit can be used to improve language skills for second language learners, to prepare for citizenship, to become familiar with parenting skills, to learn to help children learn basic skills, to retool job skills as seniors or reentry workers, to improve one’s own basic skills, and more. Some of these goals might be possible through credit, but the barriers of an enrollment process, assessment, and financial aid can be daunting to students; in addition, some of these goals rank very low among college priorities when measured against the transfer and workforce preparation focus of credit.

Noncredit courses also have the advantage of often having more counseling and student support embedded within the courses, and noncredit can be structured in a way that encourages more hands-on pedagogy and instructor-student interaction with material to better foster student development. While credit courses may very effectively embed student support and offer a tremendous amount of instructor engagement with individual students, such a structure is more the norm in noncredit.

Colleges have long made less use of noncredit because the fact that noncredit was funded at a lower rate was a deterrent, especially when budgets were tight. At many colleges, faculty compensation also differs between credit and noncredit sections, with noncredit being paid at a lower rate per hour. In addition, noncredit has been stigmatized as “not college” when in fact California community colleges offer noncredit courses that may be as rigorous as credit counterparts.

California community colleges are currently undergoing an effort to increase access through noncredit, and California state legislators and the governor are to thank. The education trailer bills for the last three years all included items that encouraged an increase in noncredit instruction to better serve underserved populations. 

In 2013, AB 86 (Education Omnibus Trailer Bill, 2013-2014) was passed. AB 86 amended California Education Code §84830 and directed the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges and the State Department of Education to provide two-year planning and implementation grants to regional consortia comprised of community college districts and school districts for the purpose of developing regional plans to better serve the educational needs of adults through elementary and secondary basic skills, classes and courses for immigrants including citizenship, English as a Second Language, and workforce preparation courses in basic skills, education programs for adults with disabilities, short-term career technical education programs with high employment potential, and programs offering pre-apprenticeship training activities. All five areas of focus are noncredit areas, and consortia were encouraged to first identify underserved adult populations then begin considering how to increase access and services to these populations.

In 2014, AB 860 (Education Omnibus Trailer Bill, 2014-2015) amended California Education Code §84750.5 to increase the funding of Career Development and College Preparation (CDCP) FTES to the same rate as credit beginning in the 2015-2016 year.  While noncredit FTES continued to be funded at 60% of credit FTES rates, CDCP had been enhanced to 71% of the credit rate since 2006 but still at level less than credit. The equalization of funding for CDCP created an opportunity for colleges to consider maintenance and development of noncredit courses without the disincentive of lower funding.

Building on the adult education efforts started under AB 86 (2013), in 2015 AB 104 (Education Omnibus Trailer Bill, 2015-2016) amended California Education Code §84900 to establish the Adult Education Block Grant (AEBG) under the supervision of the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges and the Superintendent of Instruction. AEBG expanded the scope of the adult education programs eligible for development by regional consortia to serve underserved adults.  In addition to the original five areas of emphasis, two additional areas were added:  programs for adults, including, but not limited to older adults, that are primarily related to entry or reentry into the workforce, and programs for adults, including but not limited to older adults, that are primarily designed to develop knowledge and skills to assist elementary and secondary school children to succeed academically in school.  These areas are also included under noncredit.

Three years of legislative efforts have led to increased conversations about adult education and noncredit. These conversations are long overdue. While five of the system’s 113 colleges generated 50% of noncredit FTES in 2014-2015 and the top 10 of 42 districts delivering noncredit generated 90% of the system’s CDCP FTES in 2014-2015 (CCCCO presentation to ACCE, October 19, 2015), times are changing and more faculty are considering ways in which noncredit can open access to students. These changes require conversations about current course and program offerings, conversations that can be difficult, but the opportunity to redesign community college curriculum to better serve students and create greater access will be worth pursuing as more students can achieve their educational goals.