October 4, 2023


Super Art is Almost

Suggested Alternative Names for “Non-Credit” Programs

Suggested Alternative Names for "Non-Credit" Programs


Last week, following up on an excellent program by New America, I asked my wise and worldly readers if they had better names for “non-credit” programs than “non-credit” programs.  It’s a term that doesn’t mean much to most people who aren’t already in higher ed, and defines programs by what they are not.  Surely, I mused, there must be a better way.


I had mentioned that “certificate” wasn’t ideal, because it’s misleading.  Some credit programs have certificate programs in them; indeed, some certificates are comprised entirely of credit courses.  Other certificates are redeemable, if that’s the word, for credits.  (Certain IT certifications work that way.)  If we start referring to non-credit programs as certificate programs, we’d foster confusion within the degree programs that include stackable certificates.  


It quickly became clear that I should have qualified the question.  Broadly speaking, “non-credit’ programs fall into three major categories: Adult Basic Education, Workforce Development, and Personal Enrichment.  ABE refers to programs like adult literacy or entry-level ESL.  They’re meant to address illiteracy, or to help recent immigrants learn or improve their English.  Workforce development programs are meant to help prepare people for specific types of jobs.  Sometimes they substitute for traditional degrees, although they’re also popular among career changers and among folks who need continuing education to remain current in their fields.  The final category refers to courses that people take just for personal interest.  They’re the “museum trip” classes that are often popular among retirees.  (My Mom takes some of these, and reports that the good ones are great fun.  Among her favorites were one on flower arranging and one on Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.  At this point in her journey, she could give two hoots about getting credit hours.)  


For present purposes, I’m focusing on the workforce development category.


Per usual, readers stepped up.  I’ll share what they (y’all) offered, along with some thoughts.


“Enhancement,” “Expansion,” or “Enrichment.”  (h/t Cathy Davidson).  These are all better than “non-credit,” but I wonder if they have a bit too much baggage.  “Enhancement” and “enrichment” sound like either a supplement to a credit program, or something closer to the classic museum trip. “Expansion” sounds like the old “Extension” programs.  


“Workforce programs” doesn’t quite work either because so many of the credit-bearing programs are geared towards the workforce.  For example, the folks in the Nursing department would be genuinely shocked to hear that their program is not about preparing nurses for the allied health workforce.  As with “certificate,” it’s too broad.  I have the same reaction to the term “career” programs.


“Courses of study” sounds too close to the credit side, too.  It also tends to imply a sequence, which isn’t always the case.


“Microcredentials” isn’t bad.  It’s trendy, and the term is capacious enough to include a wide range.  It also implies that degrees are “macro,” which is sort of flattering.  I see potential here.


“Diploma” programs strike me as likely to cause confusion with GED programs.


“Accelerated Skills Training” is pretty good.  It’s fairly specific – it connotes workforce – and the term “accelerated” implies speed, which is crucial for working adults.  Some object to the term “training,” but I don’t.


“FIST” (Focused, Intensive, Short-Term) has a certain panache, but it may be a bit, well, pugilistic.  I’d rather sound welcoming than confrontational.  This isn’t boot camp.


The question may seem fairly arcane, but it matters.  I don’t want prospective students to be confused if they sign up for a non-credit program and then don’t get credit.  (That has happened.)  And the name should be transparent enough that people who don’t live in the higher ed world should be able to understand it.  They’re the target audience, after all.


Thank you to my wise and worldly readers for helping me think this one through.  It’s probably revealing that among the range of responses, nobody defended “non-credit” as a category.  On that, at least, we seem to have a consensus.