Exploring the Options: Non-Credit Community College Courses

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

March 1, 2022

While most people agree that pursuing college credits is a laudable life goal, they may disagree on what actually entails ‘a college education.’ As the economy shifts into its post-COVID ‘normal,’ many are focused on retraining for new opportunities and eying the re-education options available at their local community college. Some will find that the non-credit program opportunities offered there will provide a better education – and future – than they could have imagined in their pre-COVID life.



The Significance of Non-Credit Courses

America’s current higher education system began as a ‘return to normalcy’ training opportunity for returning soldiers after the wars of the mid-20th Century. Over time, it has evolved into a driver of the four-year university degree ‘ideal,’ and turned its attention and assets to guiding all learners towards that goal. In the process, the schools that didn’t offer those four-year credentials resorted to offering other educational options that didn’t require an end certification, diploma, or degree. Unfortunately, this recalibration of the higher education system also resulted in the discontinuance of the many vocational training programs that had arisen in America beginning in the 19th Century. Left without access to these job-focused training programs, a large percentage of the population no longer had a viable employment preparation process.

The rise of the community college system addressed some of these disparities, as those schools began offering shorter, more distilled courses than were presented at the four-year university. However, many of these courses were offered as ‘non-credit’ courses, meaning that they weren’t tied to attaining credits, diplomas, or certifications. And, because they didn’t lead to those specific educational targets, many people began thinking of both the courses and the ‘community colleges’ that offered them as less valid as educational resources than the offerings provided by four-year universities.

The past decade, however, has revealed a great demand for the ‘middle skills’ taught by those shorter programs and earlier vocational programs. Many companies now recognize that the values offered by these skill sets don’t often accompany a four-year Bachelor’s degree. For many students, attaining an education in half the time can be life-changing. Learners can obtain their chosen occupational training in one- or two-year increments and then launch their career and new life earlier than they thought was possible.



California Takes the Lead

California’s community colleges (CCC) recognized a decade ago that they could facilitate the demand for middle-skill training by rethinking their non-credit programming. Instead of offering what had become ‘dead end’ courses that did not feed any kind of formal academic award, the CCCs determined that the overarching CCC system (116 schools serving 2.1 million students) should provide occupation-focused training that responded to employer’s needs while accommodating the specific needs of the learner. By reorganizing both the intent and the activities of the non-credit learning system into workforce development programs, schools could use those dedicated funding streams to better respond to the needs of two of their core constituents – their registered students and their local business community. But there are still hurdles to overcome …

Unfortunate Stigma

In too many cases, people continue to overlook the educational options available at community colleges, which they assume are simply stepping stones to a four-year degree or offer no value as the foundation of a meaningful career.

The truth is that today’s community colleges provide two-year, non-credit learning pathways to well-paying jobs that often compare favorably with the values offered by a four-year commitment. The middle-skills they teach – those that provide the essential services that support professionals, industries, and organizations – are becoming more critical as the world transitions into a more digital and connected global economy.

Unnecessary Myths

Dispelling just three myths that shroud the value of a community college program can help learners see what they may have overlooked:

      1. “Community college is too easy.”

Actually, up to 40% of all community college students are fulfilling the prerequisites of the first two years of their intended four-year degree. Academic standards are comparable at both institutions.

      1. “There’s no real ‘college’ experience.”

Also not true. Like a four-year school, community college campuses teem with clubs, groups, events, and other collegiate activities that round out a full college lifestyle.

      1. “They don’t support students as well as four-year colleges.”

Also not true. Community schools offer comparable levels of financial aid and are very flexible in how they work to meet their unique student body needs. In some cases, the community college bests its four-year competitor by providing more fundamental but equally critical ‘soft skills’ for employment attainment, such as interview skills, resume advising, and, depending on the chosen career, even on-the-job training as an element of the program.


Enviable Examples

Some examples of diplomas or certifications available through a California community college illuminate the long-range economic value they offer their learners:

Graphics Design:

The COVID pandemic underscored the high value of digital displays, and demand for graphics designers is expected to grow by 3% between now and 2026. These careers span many industries because virtually every enterprise invests in the presentation of its physical and online presence. From sign makers to illustrators to video game designers, the development and deployment of ‘graphics’ is a growing industry. On average, a graphics designer can earn as much as $85,000 per year.

Computer & Business Administration Support:

Workers skilled in both computer systems and administrative functions command high respect in today’s advanced industrial sectors. In many companies, leadership focuses on the organization’s core competencies and relies on its support staff to manage day-to-day office and department functioning. From data entry to records management to basic business math oversight, workers in these occupations can earn up to $28 per hour, and demand for these skills is expected to grow by 6% by 2026.

Medical Office Administration:

Medical offices require a different style of ‘administrative‘ functioning because of their specialized healthcare focus. Medical terminology, in particular, requires specialized knowledge, and workers skilled in medical interpretation and translation perform a critical function within the larger healthcare team. Pay rates for these jobs range from $22,000 to $86,000, although the annual average is about $47,000.


As the economy emerges from the pandemic, more of these ‘middle skilled’ jobs are becoming available. California’s community colleges have or are building the training programs needed to provide that middle-skilled workforce, and their non-credit course opportunities offer access to an affordable education and an employment future that many people never believed was achievable.









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