Non-Credit Education: An Open Door to a New Future?

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

What if you’re ready to work and you’ve found a job opportunity that provides everything you’re asking for, but it requires skills you don’t have and you have no money with which to get them? It’s entirely possible that your best bet to finding a solution to this dilemma is a non-credit course or program offered by one of California’s Community Colleges (CCC). Chances are, thousands of Californians who were displaced from their jobs by COVID-19 will be seeking further skills training through one of the many free non-credit courses that are available through the community college located  just down the street.


An Alternative Route to Tomorrow’s Jobs

Right now, across the country, millions of out-of-work former employees are pondering their next step toward their future employment. The COVID-19 virus has been especially difficult for lower-wage earners, who were among the first to lose their jobs when the pandemic rolled through the country and are often among the last to find new employment as it recedes. In many cases, their former jobs were replaced by machines or computer software programming. In other cases, the work was modified to accommodate the ‘work-from-home’ phenomenon, which also pared away those workers who didn’t have the skills or resources to engage with their occupation through those filters. Still others struggled to find any kind of occupational purchase, and the mass shut-down of many industries blunted their prospects even further.

All these calamities added additional weight to the already serious challenge facing workers in the bottom 10% of the national workforce, whose earning capacity rose by just 1.6% between 1979 and 2018. (By contrast, those workers in the 50% sector saw their annual earning capacity grow by 6.1% and those in the 90th percentile experienced a 37% growth in earning power over the same period.) The reasons behind the lag in low-wage earning capacity are many:

Technological advancements eroded many industries that used to pay living wages to their workers, including the automobile and manufacturing industries.

Increased competition driven by increased global trade also contributed to the challenge, as companies outsourced less skilled work off-shore to foreign regions where annual pay is a fraction of that in the United States.

Evolving labor practices also added to the suppression of low-wage job earnings. For years, Congress has refused to increase the national minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 since 2009. The decline of labor unions also negatively impacted earning capacity as big business and new regulations silenced those aggregated voices.

Add these concerns to the already eviscerated, COVID-eroded labor market and it appears that low-skilled workers will have a very challenging time finding new work, especially work that pays them a living wage.

Consequently, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of them are considering furthering their education to improve their economic situation. For many, the non-credit courses offered for free at their local community college are an optimal option.


‘Non-Credit’ Doesn’t Mean ‘No-Value’

Essentially, non-credit courses offered through the community college portal are just that: educational programs that provide training but don’t also include a credit that would count toward a certificate, diploma, or degree. Typically, these courses and programs offer more fundamental skills training, such as learning English as a second language or basic numeracy skills. However, for learners who weren’t able to finish high school or who want to improve their employment opportunity for work but elect not to pursue a certificate or degree, the non-credit option offers excellent educational value at a really reasonable price.

Their rudimentary purpose doesn’t mean, however, that the courses themselves don’t offer high value. In most cases, these non-credit programs are as rigorously vetted and structured as for-credit classes. The skills attained through them are as valid as those gained through other educational resources. Students who complete these programs are as skilled in their new abilities as any other college student who completes a course.


California’s Non-Credit Education Opportunities

California’s community colleges offer non-credit learning opportunities through two primary portals: General Basic Skills (aimed at facilitating finding work and participating in society), and through dedicated Career & Technical Education (CTE) pathways.

General Basic Skills

According to a 2017 report:

almost all of the State’s community colleges (85%) offer non-credit classes teaching English reading and writing skills as a Second Language (ESL) or ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages);

more than half (57%) offer high school equivalency classes – Adult Basic Education (ABE) or Adult Secondary Education (ASE), and

slightly less than half (44%) provide non-credit courses for students with disabilities – Disabled Student Programs & Services. These programs assist learners with challenges to improve their quality of life by teaching independent living skills, pre-vocational skills, computer instruction, and access technology instruction, to name just a few.

Many colleges also provide recreational and wellness course options, too, for students who simply want to learn new hobbies (Arts & Crafts, Music, and Literature/Writing are popular) or improve their personal health (Health & Wellness, Body Dynamics and the Aging Process, and Nutrition attract older learners).

CTE Pathways

While less than half of the schools (43%) offer CTE programs with non-credit options, most of those that do provide courses related to three major industrial clusters: Health Science & Medical Technology, Building & Construction Trades, and Business & Finance. Fewer schools offer non-credit courses in other CTE sectors, such as Information & Communication Studies, Energy, Environment, & Utilities, and Arts, Media, & Entertainment, to name just three. Learners will have to seek those out to find the campus that can fill their particular non-credit CTE needs.

Note, too, that as the pandemic recedes and more jobs become available, many colleges are looking at how their non-credit courses can fill job-seeking students’ needs and possibly find ways to attribute credits to those efforts. Driving the project is the fact that many currently jobless people are forced to put ‘some college, no degree’ on a job application when that training or course actually provided them with a usable skill. Having that non-credit educational asset attributed to a certification or diploma may mean the difference between collecting a paycheck or collecting unemployment.


If you’re one of California’s millions of unemployed people, you may find the support you need to find work through your local community college’s free non-credit programs. Or you might want to invest in yourself and obtain a credential or diploma through its CTE programming. In either case, Californians can be proud that their community college system is working hard to get its residents – and economy – back to work.


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