As technology continues to advance rapidly, the labor market exhibits a growing need for more frequent and ongoing skill development. At the same time, employers in many fields encounter difficulties finding adequately trained workers to meet their needs. According to data released by the U.S. Department of Labor, aside from a temporary dip as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of unfilled jobs increased steadily during the last decade, from 2.2 million in May 2009 to a record high of 9.2 million in May 2021, which is almost the same as the number of individuals who were unemployed during the same month. While many factors may influence inefficiencies in labor force demand and supply, evidence suggests that one of the main reasons for the unfilled positions is the mismatch between the skills required for jobs and the skills workers hold, or the “skills gap.”
Community college noncredit career and technical education (CTE) programs allow students to earn workforce training and credentials and play an essential role in providing workers with the skills they need to compete for high-demand positions. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, in 2018 approximately five million noncredit students were enrolled in community colleges nationally, representing 41 percent of the total enrollments at two-year institutions. In comparison with credit-bearing programs, noncredit programs are usually intended to develop skills that provide a direct pathway to a specific career. Since they are not subject to requirements such as accreditation and other forms of college- and state-level oversight, such programs can respond more quickly to shifting workforce demands and employer needs. Furthermore, due to their flexible course schedules, short durations, and lower costs, noncredit programs have the potential to expand access to postsecondary education among adult learners with low incomes, who may find it difficult to balance life and work responsibilities with the longer time requirements, course sequences, and greater costs of credit-bearing programs. Indeed, existing research indicates that students enrolled in noncredit CTE programs tend to be adult learners and are typically from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than are students in credit-bearing programs at community colleges. Accordingly, noncredit CTE programs can serve as an important pathway to a career in the skilled technical workforce for these populations and can also help federal and state governments achieve the broader equity goals they are increasingly setting.
Yet there is a dearth of research on these programs, given that noncredit students are typically not included in state and national postsecondary data sets. Correspondingly, very little is known about the percentages of students who complete noncredit programs, their labor market outcomes, or the extent to which they go on to enroll in credit-bearing programs—especially among students from underrepresented groups. In addition, little is known about how students learn and make decisions about enrolling in these programs, what students’ ultimate goals are, how institutions support students through noncredit CTE programs, which factors mediate noncredit students’ postsecondary educational and labor market outcomes, and whether the benefits of participating in noncredit CTE vary across students and programs. This limited information about noncredit programs has imposed significant barriers to effective workforce development policy for adult learners.
The VCCS Noncredit CTE Study will begin to fill this gap by exploring noncredit CTE programs systematically at community colleges that are part of the Virginia Community College System.