Extra credit for non-credit

The rewards of putting a fresh focus on noncredit courses
By: | Issue: August, 2014
July 24, 2014

Georgetown University officials had a bit of an epiphany recently about the impact of their noncredit courses. While the offerings had been around since the 1990s, administrators hadn’t realized the big benefits they could bring to the institution.

“What started as fairly standard, adult-education, personal-interest type of courses has evolved into a major part of our portfolio,” says Edwin Schmierer, associate dean of the Center for Continuing and Professional Education at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. “Moving away from general interest topics and taking a more strategic approach has resulted in numerous benefits, from more revenue to greater partnership opportunities.”

Georgetown isn’t alone in seeing opportunities related to enrolling students in noncredit courses.

When the American Association of Community Colleges last took an in-depth look at noncredit education, researchers interviewed policymakers in all 50 states and officials from 20 community colleges.

The resulting report, “Noncredit Enrollment in Workforce Education” (2008), noted how common postsecondary noncredit education had become and that many schools were generating profits or were at least self-supporting. The other colleges surveyed reported that they were moving toward becoming profitable.

The report also urged colleges to keep pace with the need for these courses and to make them more accessible to all students. Noncredit students, the research found, tend to be older than for-credit students, with ages 36 to 42 the most common. Many noncredit students are interested in building skills as well as earning certifications.

Most two- and four-year institutions do offer some form of noncredit courses, but there’s value in seeing these programs as more than just an add-on to degree programs.

Resources and revenue

Barbara Kreisman, associate dean at the Daniels College of Business at University of Denver, notes that noncredit courses help the college meet revenue goals that might not be achieved with tuition alone. About 125 noncredit students receive certificates from the college each year while numerous others take short courses for different skills and knowledge, she says.

5 reasons to bolster noncredit programs

  1. Noncredit can be a driver for innovation, such as online programs or MOOCs.
  2. Significant increases in noncredit students usually means larger revenue opportunities and more recognition.
  3. Corporations, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies may be interested in customized noncredit programs, leading to stronger partnerships.
  4. Trends in noncredit programs can help to shape curriculum for degree programs; for example, a surge in interest for certain business topics could affect MBA tracks.
  5. Dedicated, web-hosted noncredit platforms require minimal internal resources, especially considering the benefits they could provide.

Other students take noncredit courses as a way to “try out” the school before moving into a degree program. No matter the reason, the number of noncredit students has more than doubled over the past dozen years, Kreisman says.

“We’d like to shift some resources out of our degree program toward noncredit education,” Kreisman says. “It’s a different market, with a different audience, and different learning outcomes. Schools would benefit from thinking about what these students need, and meeting them where they are.”

Professional topics seem to be especially in demand, says Schmierer of Georgetown, citing project management and leadership coaching as examples. “That’s where the market is going. There’s an increased value placed on continuing education for different professions,” he says. “Plus, a lot more people are career changers. Certification is targeted, and a faster way of changing careers than getting another master’s degree.”

Students seeking more professional skills also show a willingness to pay more for courses compared to those enrolling in for-credit programs, he says. This is particularly true if a certificate is involved. “Economically, it makes much better sense to us to put our effort into these targeted classes as opposed to general interest,” he says.

Currently, Georgetown offers 30 professional certification programs in project management, leadership coaching and other subjects. The school works with corporations, nonprofits and federal agencies to meet specific business objectives through custom-created workforce education initiatives. As a result, the program continues to boom.

Georgetown sees about 9,000 noncredit registrations per year, which translates to around 3,000 unique students.

“We’re very market-driven, especially on the noncredit side of the house,” says Schmierer. The university has formed teams that look at employment trends and new technologies, then meet for strategic planning. They identify gaps in the market when it comes to education, and that feeds into the noncredit course development process.

Tracking with technology

For a school of any size, scalability can be a concern when tracking noncredit education—particularly if a homegrown student information system is involved. At a certain point, a school might find that in-house noncredit tracking and enrollment systems can’t handle increases in students, courses and online options.

At Georgetown, for example, noncredit courses were once managed through a customized system that kept adding layers of functionality, until it ultimately became too complex and unwieldy. Jeremy Stanton, executive director of technology in the School of Continuing Studies, says that problem was solved by implementing Destiny One by Destiny Solutions in early 2013, after a nine-month pilot of the system.

Having an all-in-one management system that’s specific to noncredit programs is key when it comes to strategic growth, Stanton says. Faculty can manage curriculum and load grades while students can enroll and receive school communications. Also, finance administrators can pull reports and track revenue. “It’s fantastic to have so many pieces in one place, together,” says Stanton. “Also, because it’s hosted, there are very few in-house resources needed.”

The platform also should help as Georgetown moves more into online education, he adds. Because Destiny One integrates with the university’s learning management system, the School of Continuing Studies can easily set up an online course or reconfigure a credit course into a noncredit one, Stanton says.

Integration is key when it comes any noncredit management system, and many schools are finding that their platforms “play well with others.” For example, the Virginia Community College System chose Augusoft Lumens web-hosted enrollment management software because it integrated with existing enterprise systems, which were developed internally.

In announcing the implementation, Joy Hatch, vice chancellor of Information Technology Services for VCCS, said that the system—used for noncredit workforce development and continuing education courses—supports a strategic plan to increase educational access. She added that college workforce leaders at VCCS asked for a web-based enrollment, payment and activity management system designed specifically for noncredit students.

Another advantage in tracking noncredit more effectively is automation in reporting. The Institute of Government at the University of Central Florida provides training and technical assistance to local governments, state agencies and nonprofit organizations. This work is supported by fees and state grant money, which means that reports must be generated quarterly for how the funds were allocated, says Michelle Gardner, coordinator at the institute.

The university uses Student Manager from ACEware Software, and Gardner says she has been pleased with its ability to track details like the number of participants at a specific event and the size of classrooms needed for certain courses.

Hybrid approach

While many administrators see benefits in developing deeper noncredit strategies, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. At Michigan State University, for example, each academic department handles its own noncredit enrollments because the institution is so decentralized, says Nicole Rovig, university registrar.

Many departments are using systems they developed, although a few still track with pen and paper. The breadth of approaches makes it difficult for Rovig to estimate how many noncredit students take courses each year, which makes it challenging to track revenue or demand trends, she says.

But, she adds, the system works because personnel in each academic department are “closest to the educational experience,” meaning they’re most familiar with how to handle noncredit options. Some might offer noncredit in a very informal way, while others develop courses that are academically rigorous and result in a certificate.

But MSU does let departments bring their noncredit efforts together with other university systems. Rovig notes that about four years ago, the university implemented Higher Reach from Jenzabar. Use of Higher Reach is optional for departments, she says, and about 30 percent of departments have been using the tool to manage noncredit students.

“We think this makes for a good balance,” says Rovig. “There’s a system available for those who don’t want to run their own, and tools in that system that can be helpful. But for those departments that want to handle noncredit students on their level, or in an informal way, they’re free to do that.”

Wave of the future?

Despite some of the administrative and technological challenges that can crop up, many schools would likely benefit from taking a look at their noncredit strategies and thinking about how to expand those programs significantly, says Kreisman of Georgetown.

“We’re seeing a greater demand for noncredit programs from people who want to learn certain skills but don’t want to do a degree program,” she says. “There seems to be less of a demand for full-degree programs as there is for just-in-time learning, and I think we need to pay attention to that shift.”

Elizabeth Millard is a Minneapolis-based writer.