As the wages of high school graduates plummet, postsecondary education and training has become critical to obtaining a living-wage job. Obtaining an associate’s degree or higher has the greatest potential to produce long-lasting increases in individual earnings. However, recent studies have shown that shorter-term credentials, which may take only a few months to earn, can also help people enter the labor force with higher earning potential, particularly in certain high-tech career fields like information technology and advanced manufacturing.
Career and technical education (CTE) and workforce programs have long been important avenues for community colleges to respond to labor market and employer needs. Additionally, the shorter time commitment that these programs demand is particularly attractive to those who are already working or who want or need to enter the labor force quickly and do not have the time to earn a college degree—a fact that is borne out by the large populations of older and displaced workers who enter these programs.
While shorter-term credentialing and training programs have promise, many also present challenges for schools and students. Because these programs operate under a different system of governance from colleges’ academic programs and have traditionally been divorced from those pathways, students encounter challenges applying their noncredit training toward academic degrees.
Although short-term credentialing programs can be beneficial, there might also be ways to improve them so that they can create pathways for longer-term success. Recently, some practitioners and policymakers have begun developing promising linkages across colleges’ noncredit CTE training and their academic pathways. Traditionally, individuals who take noncredit courses or earn a credential through a noncredit pathway have been unable to count those courses toward the credits needed for an academic degree and often must take similar academic courses to earn the credits they need to graduate.
Many colleges, policymakers, and community college networks have begun advocating for new policies and systems to help students overcome barriers between the academic and nonacademic sectors.