Mapping State Progress and Opportunities for Non-Degree Credentials and Pathways

By Kate Michaels, February 29, 2024

On February 15, 2024, National Skills Coalition (NSC) hosted a convening at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas: Mapping State Progress and Opportunities for Non-Degree Credentials and Pathways. The event brought together fifty participants from eleven states and thirteen national organizations, composed of leaders in state higher education and workforce agencies, state data offices, community college systems and institutions, and policy and advocacy groups. Together, participants discussed how states are investing in, measuring, and communicating about the quality and outcomes of non-degree credentials (NDCs) and pathways with an eye towards equity.

The convening represents a continuation of NSC’s work focused on quality NDCs (QNDCs). It builds on NSC’s report from summer 2023, The Non-Degree Credential Quality Imperative, that shares NSC’s work with states to define and implement quality assurance for NDCs so that policymakers feel confident in investing in non-degree credentials, students have confidence in their training programs, and employers know which programs effectively prepare people for careers. NSC’s focus on data to understand whether and how NDCs lead to equitable and positive returns to learners is also connected to its recently launched Expanding College and Career Pathways Initiative, which seeks to increase college affordability, holistic supports, and completion of QNDCs that offer pathways to quality careers and further education.

The goals of the convening were to:

  • Examine investments in non-degree credentials, programs, and data.
  • Identify progress states have made to understand and report on quality, outcomes, and impact tied to non-degree credentials, programs, and investments.
  • Unpack what it will take to leverage data for better transparency and decision making.
  • Create space for peer learning about how data can inform state investments, policies, and quality non-degree credential pathways to benefit learners and employers.

Texas provided the ideal location for this gathering, thanks to the landmark passage of HB8, a bipartisan bill that passed unanimously in the Texas Senate and was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbot . The new law will strengthen community colleges by establishing a new performance-based funding system that elevates and invests in credentials of value—including QNDCs. A panel of Texas state leaders set the stage for the day’s discussion, highlighting the importance of incentive-based funding, enhanced data collection, and diversified educational pathways for students. One panelist, Dr. David Troutman, Deputy Commissioner for Academic Affairs and Innovation for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), explained, “A lot happens in the community college world that falls under the radar. HB8 is allowing us to promote what has already been going on and to elevate and fund it.”

Meeting participants came together to discuss what is currently happening in states and what it will take to move the needle in reporting on QNDCs and pathways. To ground the conversation, NSC shared a soon-to-be-published rubric for mapping state progress towards measuring and reporting on quality and equity for NDCs, focused on four key areas:

  • Data practices and capacities for robust measurement and transparency around the quality of NDCs and the outcomes for those who earn them.
  • Key data variables required to conduct a comprehensive analysis of NDC quality and equity.
  • Data policies, systems, and infrastructure necessary for putting the right data and data practices into action.
  • Data transparency and reporting requirements for making data accessible and usable for students and workers, employers, educations, and policymakers.

Throughout the day, attendees reflected on progress-to-date, identified challenges, and exchanged ideas. From these discussions, several common themes arose:

  • Need for strong leadership, relationships, & stakeholder alignment – There is a need for definitional and strategic alignment to ensure parties are speaking the same language and working towards the same goals, both at a state and national level. Relationships and trust are critical to bringing different stakeholders to the table including higher education and workforce agencies, community colleges, the business community, and workforce development partners. States should ensure consistent communication and feedback loops for engaging partners in decision making.
  • Collecting the right data – A central need is more robust noncredit data collection and systems. Very little continuing education and workforce training data are currently included in state/college data systems, especially data on total costs of attendance (beyond tuition and fees) and longitudinal student outcomes (such as educational attainment, placement, retention, and wage data). It is also critical to disaggregate data to measure equity and tell the full story about whether students and workers are better off through participating in programs and receiving a credential.
  • Integrating data systems – The necessary data for analysis and reporting lives in multiple places and doesn’t always connect. States and colleges need better ways to link data sources and ensure information systems speak to each other, especially between credit and noncredit data systems, across agencies, and from third party sources. Much of these data are being collected manually because the systems do not exist to easily capture the information otherwise, creating challenges and capacity constraints across states, agencies, and colleges.
  • Making data dynamic & actionable – Creating dynamic data is a priority. Metrics don’t have to be permanent; they can change over time through learning about what metrics matter and as industry needs evolve. States are focused on getting data into the hands of the right people, including job seekers, counselors, advisors, and more in a way that’s consumable and can move the needle toward better education and labor market outcomes. Efforts are underway to invest in data modernization and share noncredit data and outcomes through accessible dashboards and online platforms.
  • Importance of data narratives – Participants highlighted that it’s not just about having the data, but about using it to share stories about learner experiences and outcomes with audiences ranging across funders, legislatures, students, and institutions to help them understand the value of these credentials and tell the full “credentials to careers” story . Combining qualitative and quantitative data can help humanize these outcomes.

As states increasingly invest in QNDCs and pathways, it is essential to equip decision makers with comprehensive data to understand QNDCs’ impact and outcomes for students and workers. These credentials present a remarkable opportunity to build momentum and deliver short-term wins for students and workers. By embracing diverse educational pathways, we can provide multiple avenues toward fulfilling careers. Lee Rector, Associate Commissioner of Workforce Education for THECB, aptly remarked, “We can use this historic moment to bring workforce education out of the shadows,” shedding light on the opportunities associated with non-degree credentials for policymakers and workers alike.

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