Unlike most four-year colleges, where the student body is often homogeneous, community colleges serve many kinds of learners pursuing different goals. They include traditional college-age students looking for a gateway to higher education, midcareer adults seeking skills to help them succeed in the labor market, immigrants needing English-language instruction and incumbent workers whose employers pay the college for specialized technical training, among others.
A welter of terms has emerged over the years to describe these varied missions. States use different labels to describe similar functions, and the language used by reformers is sometimes at odds with the vocabulary of traditional educators.
Some of the more important concepts and terms used in this report:
- Academic programs versus workforce programs. Most community colleges struggle to balance two missions: preparing students for the workplace and for further higher education.
Among the most popular community college academic programs: liberal arts, general studies, sociology and psychology. The most popular workforce programs are sometimes called technical programs, job-focused programs, occupational programs, vocational programs or career and technical education (CTE). The most successful of these programs are allied health, business administration and the skilled trades.
- Credit programs versus noncredit programs. A second, cross-cutting divide separates programs that confer credit toward a college credential, whether a degree or a short-term certificate, from those that do not confer credit.
Not all credit programs are academic: Nationwide, roughly half are job-focused. (Think about an allied health program leading to a nursing degree.) And not all noncredit programs are vocational: Nationwide, about 40 percent offer instruction geared to personal interests or preparing for college. (Commonly offered programs include remedial math, English as a second language and recreational courses such as French cooking and photography.)
But many students attending community college to upgrade their job skills prefer noncredit courses, which tend to be shorter than credit offerings, more tightly focused on technical skills and more closely aligned with the changing labor market.
Other terms sometimes used for credit programs: credit-eligible, credit-bearing, degree-granting and curriculum programs. Other terms for noncredit: noncredit-bearing, adult education and continuing education.
- Academic credentials versus nondegree credentials. Community colleges prepare students to earn a wide array of credentials, some of them conferred by the college and others by neutral third parties—entities unrelated to the college—that assess learners’ skills to award competency-based credentials, often called certifications.
Academic credentials, sometimes called college credentials, include degrees and certificates, which are generally earned after a year or less of study. Among the most commonly earned third-party credentials, sometimes called noncollege credentials, are licensure and industry certifications.
At many colleges, both credit and noncredit programs prepare learners for the third-party exams they need to pass to attain noncollege credentials.
- Bridging the gap between credit and noncredit. As colleges work to upgrade the quality of noncredit programs and better integrate them into campus life, educators nationwide have focused on building bridges for noncredit students and others who later return to school to continue their education.
Among the terms used to describe these bridges: articulation, matriculation, stackable credentials, credit for prior learning and prior learning assessments. The goal of all these mechanisms is to grant recognition for knowledge and skills acquired outside the institution that is considering granting college credit, saving students time and money as they pursue a degree.