The Noncredit Career and Technical Education Study at the Virginia Community College System


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.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

In response to the increasing demand for skilled workers to fill the available and emerging jobs in the commonwealth, in 2016 Virginia established the New Economy Workforce Credentials Grant Program (WCG). The purpose of the program is to create and sustain a supply of credentialed workers for high-demand occupations in the state. The WCG, implemented as the Virginia “FastForward Program,” provides a pay-for-performance model for funding noncredit workforce training that leads to a credential in a high-demand field. In this model, costs are shared among the state, students, and the training institution, where the specific amounts of funding are based on student performance. One important implication of the WCG program is that the state receives data on who completes programs and on who receives credentials, data typically unavailable in other states. 

Most of the noncredit CTE programs consist of only one course that runs between 6 and 12 weeks and has a mix of lectures and hands-on skill demonstrations. According to a recent report by the state, these programs tend to serve a working adult population with an average age of 36, two-thirds of whom have dependents. Descriptive statistics suggest that the majority of noncredit CTE graduates experience a 25 percent to 50 percent wage gain after attaining their credentials. Although hundreds of CTE programs have been offered, nearly three-quarters of the enrollments were from 10 programs concentrating in five occupational fields: health care (four programs), welding and manufacturing (two programs), logistics and transportation (two programs), information technology (one program), and skilled trades (one program). These programs accounted for 73 percent and 75 percent of the total enrollment in the noncredit CTE programs in 2019 and 2020, respectively. All these programs are offered by multiple colleges in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). The awarded credentials appear to address but not exceed an annual need, implying that there is room for further growth in enrollment in these noncredit CTE programs.  

The VCCS Noncredit CTE Study will address the following research questions:

  • What are the academic and labor market outcomes of students enrolled in noncredit CTE programs?
  • How are these programs typically designed and delivered?
  • Which program factors influence student success?
  • Did students who enrolled in noncredit CTE programs intend to continue on a longer-term pathway after obtaining the initial credential? Did they intend to transfer from a noncredit program to a credit-bearing, academic program?
  • What did students do after they completed their first credentials? Are they working in the kinds of jobs they expected to be working in? Have any students returned to take more training or classes?
  • What kinds of support would students need to continue their education or training?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The Noncredit CTE Study will be conducted in the Virginia Community College System, which includes 23 institutions across the state. The system comprises a mix of large and small schools, with institutions located in rural, suburban, and urban settings. Compared with the national average of students enrolled in two-year colleges, VCCS students are more likely to come from rural and low-income backgrounds and are more likely to be Black.

Together with partners at the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), and building on a long-standing partnership UC Irvine has with VCCS, the study team will draw on a data set that links detailed CTE program data with longitudinal student education data and quarterly earnings data—along with qualitative data collected through interviews with staff members and focus groups with students—to identify institutional and program factors that promote the academic and labor market success of students enrolled in noncredit CTE programs.

Using a combination of VCCS administrative data, National Student Clearinghouse data, unemployment insurance wage records, an administrator survey, staff and partner interviews, student focus groups, and classroom observations, the study will use descriptive and quasi-experimental analyses to delineate core evidence about noncredit CTE programs, including their impacts on students' academic and labor market outcomes, the varying approaches used by programs to design and deliver training, and student and staff experiences in these programs.