Op-Ed: Noncredit workforce training programs are very popular. We know next to nothing about them.

Di Xu, Ben Castleman, Kelli Bird, Sabrina Solanki, Michael Cooper

Well before COVID-19, politicians and business leaders expressed concern about the gap between the skills employers need to maximize productivity and the skills possessed by available workers. The pandemic has only exacerbated these gaps, with over 10 million job openings and six million unemployed workers by the end of October 2022.

Community college noncredit Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs are an important contributor to skill and workforce development. Approximately five million students enroll in community college noncredit programs nationally (more than half in CTE programs), which represents 41% of the total enrollments in the community college sector. CTE programs are highly focused on job training and are much shorter in duration than the typical community college or university degree program. In Virginia, two of the most popular CTE programs are commercial driver’s license and certified medical assistant training, which respectively consist of 168 and 180 contact hours (for comparison, full-time students complete about 150 contact hours in a semester). Noncredit CTE programs are also popular among working adults: In Virginia, the average age of students enrolled in noncredit CTE programs is 35 years old (authors’ calculations).

The federal and state governments increasingly prioritize workforce training in their policy agendas, such as the Biden Administration’s Talent Pipeline Challenge. Yet we know next to nothing about the composition of students who participate in these programs; the rates at which students complete programs and earn workforce-relevant credentials; and whether CTE program participation leads to subsequent education and training or improved workforce outcomes. While states have made substantial investments and progress in building data warehouses for their credit-bearing postsecondary education institutions, most of these longitudinal data systems do not include data from noncredit CTE programs.

In 2016 the Virginia legislature launched an innovative pay-for-performance funding mechanism, the New Economy Workforce Grant (WCG), to expand participation in community college noncredit CTE programs, or “FastForward programs,” that lead to an industry-recognized credential in one of the high-demand fields, as identified by the Virginia Workforce Board. In this model, costs are shared among the state, the students, and the training institution, where the specific amounts of funding each party pays is based on student performance, creating financial incentives for programs and students to make the programs accessible and boost completion rates. Specifically, upon enrolling, eligible students are required to pay only one third of the total program cost, which was an average of $802 in FY2022. If the student completes the program, the state provides one third of the cost to the training institution. If the student further receives a third-party, industry-recognized credential within six months of program completion, the state will pay two thirds of the cost to the training institution, enabling the training institution to be reimbursed fully. One important implication of the WCG is a mandate on systematic, statewide collection of student-level noncredit CTE data on program enrollment, completion, industry credential attainment, and labor market data.

We capitalize on these data to generate evidence on the academic and labor market outcomes of students enrolled in FastForward programs. We focus this blog post on our analyses related to participant composition, program success, and the relationship between noncredit and credit enrollment. Future work will investigate the labor market impacts of FastForward participation and the impacts of Virginia’s unique pay-for-performance model for funding noncredit CTE programs.

Visit Brookings.edu to read the full op-ed where it was originally published.

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