Thursday, November 20, 2008

Harder Than It Looks

An alert reader sent me a link to this story from the Times. It's a quick-and-dirty overview of non-credit job training programs at community colleges in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut region.

If only it were as simple as the article suggests.

The part that it gets right is that the 'non-credit' side of the college plays by very different rules than the 'credit' side. The credit side runs on a pretty strict semester system, with state-mandated rules about 'seat time' (or its equivalent), and state and federal rules about financial aid eligibility, and regional accreditation rules about nearly everything. A new course – let alone a new program – has to run through the entire shared governance process, which takes at least a year if you do it right, and more if you don't. The per-credit tuition rate is set collegewide, so a three-credit English class and a three-credit Business class have to charge the same tuition. Degrees have to include a certain number of credits, distributed in a particular way. (Associate of Arts degrees have different Gen Ed requirements than Associate of Science degrees, but any degree that gets either designation has to play by a given set of rules.) The credits are supposed to be (and usually are) transferable toward a bachelor's degree, so a student can do two years with us and two more years someplace else.

On the non-credit side, the picture is different. Courses can run for any length, in any combination of days and times, and at any price. Instructors' qualifications aren't prescribed, and the courses don't have to run through the governance process. We can go from zero to sixty in a month if we want to. (In academic terms, that's lightspeed.) The courses aren't built for transfer, and the 'certificates' awarded can designate anything from completion of a single four-week training course to completion of a sequence of several courses. Subject matter is dictated mostly by market demand, so it tends to be a combination of employment training, personal enrichment, and adult basic education (which is the stuff that comes before remediation – adult literacy classes, for example).

Like Dr. Seuss' moose juice and goose juice, everything works well when the two are kept separate. On the credit side, we abide by all manner of rules to present thoroughly vetted courses that will carry weight in the wider academic world. On the non-credit side, we present what we want, when we want, how we want, charging what we want, and we let the market tell us when we got it right or wrong. On the credit side, we're educators; on the non-credit side, we're vendors.

The classic model of non-credit workforce development is the company that comes to us asking if we can train some of its employees on a new technology or software package. We throw together a four-week hands-on program, taught either on campus or at the company, and hire a trainer to teach it. This model works really well when you have savvy people running it for an extended period, since they build up networks and reputations.

Lately, though, I've seen two trends come along that are making the distinction between the two sides much murkier than it used to be.

One is the desire among graduates of the non-credit certificate programs, after the fact, to get some kind of credit for what they've learned. Converting non-credit to credit isn't always easy. (And there's an argument to be made that it shouldn't be easy, lest we inadvertently make end runs around accreditation too easy.) Telling students who have taken non-credit training workshops over and over again for years that they'd have to start a degree just like any other freshman is a hard sell. In areas with CLEP exams and similar options, there's a reasonably elegant way to weigh claims of equivalency: if you pass the test, you're in. But how many “Microsoft Word” workshops add up to Intro to Computer Science? (Hint: they don't.)

The other, which is becoming a real challenge, is the increasing focus by grantors on 'bridging' the non-credit and credit sides of the college. The usual idea runs something like this: industry x is growing, and it needs employees. Region y has unemployed people who are turned off at the prospect of the long, hard slog to a degree. If only we could somehow grease the skids to employment by hurrying these students through, giving credit for prior learning...


The grantors have no concept of accreditation requirements, or state regs, or faculty union contracts, or shared governance. And cash-starved colleges sometimes chase these grants simply because they need the money. But the headaches that arise from trying to square the circle are massive, and increasing. The faculty bristle at what they see as encroachment. The 'vendors' bristle at what they see as needless dawdling. The financial people struggle trying to reconcile different sets of rules. The administrators try to balance it all, which basically consists in spreading the dissatisfaction relatively evenly.

Over the long term, I suspect that this blending will continue, and that we'll have to take some serious looks at some of the walls we've built between the two sides. But for now, it's a messy, complicated, ugly, frustrating picture that the Times missed completely.