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MindEdge Learning and UPCEA Study: Academic Institutions See Value in Non-Credit to Credit Pathways

MindEdge Learning and UPCEA Study: Academic Institutions See Value in Non-Credit to Credit Pathways

Nontraditional pathways are a big help to adult learners

BOSTON, MA (May 20, 2021) –

North American colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the value of non-credit to credit pathways, according to new research by UPCEA (the University Professional and Continuing Education Association) in partnership with MindEdge Learning. But most of these institutions have yet to implement these nontraditional avenues to a college degree.

Non-credit to credit pathways translate non-credit achievements – such as professional certifications or licenses, prior learning assessments, faculty reviews, and military service – into credit toward a degree or credential. With college enrollments dropping, along with public confidence in the value of a college education, non-credit to credit pathways allow students the flexibility to keep their education options open to match their lifestyle.

This phenomenon is still in its infancy. Fewer than half (43%) of surveyed institutions are currently engaged in non-credit to credit pathway activities – and of those that are, the large majority (78%) are only in the exploratory or pilot stage. And among institutions that are looking at pathways, only 13% feel extremely (5%) or very prepared (8%) to begin offering them – suggesting a missed opportunity to provide students with options that would most benefit them.

Nonetheless, many institutions sense the value that these pathways can provide both to students, and to themselves. Among institutions that are engaged in non-credit to credit pathway activities, 93% say they are doing so to help accommodate nontraditional, adult learners. And, because the pathways can enable a wider pool of students to earn a degree, 85% of these institutions believe that offering such pathways will eventually become an economic necessity for them.

“Non-credit to credit pathways will continue to play an even larger role in diversifying institutions’ offerings to appeal to a generation that’s losing confidence in traditional four-year institutions,” said Frank Connolly, director of research at MindEdge Learning. “Leaders at colleges and universities have an opportunity to reach students where they are, to set them up for success in their careers.”

The survey was distributed through direct email invitations as well as through UPCEA’s member community, CORe; it elicited responses from 122 institutions in the United States and Canada. Of the responding institutions, 70% are four-year public institutions and 24% are four-year private institutions; another 3% are community colleges, and 4% categorize themselves as “other”. The majority of responses came from the respective institutions’ continuing education departments.

Breaking away from the traditional ‘currency of learning’

Non-credit to credit pathways represent a break from the traditional “currency” of higher education, the academic credit. As such, they have the potential to help rein in the rising cost of a college degree.

A great deal of recent research has illustrated the depth of public concern about the high cost of college. A survey of 1,012 U.S. college students, conducted earlier this year by College Finance, found high levels of uncertainty, anxiety, stress, and financial pressure. Many students say they are less confident in the value of their college education, and more anxious than ever about its cost.

In that context, many institutions are coming to recognize the value that non-credit to credit pathways provide students. Among institutions in the exploratory or pilot stage, the top reasons for exploring these pathways include:

  • To help accommodate nontraditional, adult learners (93%)
  • To provide greater access to higher education (83%)
  • To provide alternative academic pathways (80%)
  • To garner interest in seeking a degree (63%)
  • To boost continuing education (CE) enrollments (58%)

An array of challenges

Despite these perceived benefits, 54% of surveyed institutions report that they are not engaged in non-credit to credit pathway development activities. The most frequently cited reasons for this inactivity are a lack of logistical knowledge (44%) and a lack of institutional support (44%).

In addition, 62% of survey respondents in the exploratory or pilot stage report that they have experienced some degree of internal resistance to these pathways. Among the institutions that report resistance, 100% say they have experienced resistance from faculty, and 46% say they have experienced it from the administration as well. The most frequently cited forms of resistance are distrust in the learning outcomes of other programs (35%) and a lack of willingness to change or improve current conditions (30%).

“The pandemic only accelerated what was already happening, a dramatic shift to a new economy. Higher education was banking on the premise that a college degree, whether online or on-campus, would continue to have staying power,” said Jim Fong, UPCEA’s Chief Research Officer and Director of the Center for Research and Strategy. “The new economy is, however, demanding stackable components to get to the degree. The new economy is also measuring learning and experiences regardless of whether they are credit or non-credit. Employers are coming to grips with the fact that a credit is not the only ‘currency’ of learning in this new economy.”

These results dovetail with the findings of a separate snap poll study that UPCEA conducted this past March. That survey of 112 institutions found that only 30% currently offer non-credit to credit pathways, while 60% do not. Among institutions that do not currently offer pathways, the most frequently cited challenges are institutional barriers or systems (31%), gaining faculty buy-in (29%), and developing non-credit to credit transfer evaluation policy (22%).

Among the institutions that currently offer pathways, community colleges are more likely than other institutions to do so. The greatest challenges institutions faced when implementing pathways include developing a non-credit to credit transfer policy (48%), gaining faculty buy-in (22%), and institutional barriers or systems (13%).

Approximately a quarter (26%) of these institutions say they overcame challenges by reviewing their courses and conducting research to aid implementation, while another 26% say they emphasized communication with faculty. One-in-five (22%) say they are still trying to overcome challenges.

The full Non-Credit to Credit Pathways report can be found here, along with case studies and best practices for implementing non-credit to credit pathways at institutions.

About The Methodology

In total, 374 member institutions received an email invitation to participate in the non-credit to credit pathways study. The survey was also distributed through UPCEA’s member community, CORe. Representatives from 122 institutions responded to the survey between August 4 and September 15, 2020. The margin of error is ±8% at the 95% confidence level. The survey was designed by Dr. Gail Ruhland of St. Cloud State University, Dr. Lynda Wilson of CSU Dominguez Hills, and Dr. Sandra von Doetinchem of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with guidance from UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy.


UPCEA is the association for professional, continuing, and online education. Founded in 1915, UPCEA now serves most of the leading public and private colleges and universities in North America. With innovative conferences and specialty seminars, research and benchmarking information, professional networking opportunities and timely publications, we support our members’ service of contemporary learners and commitment to quality online education and student success. Based in Washington, D.C., UPCEA builds greater awareness of the vital link between adult learners and public policy issues. Visit www.upcea.edu.

About MindEdge Learning

MindEdge’s mission is to improve the way the world learns. Since its founding in 1998 by Harvard and MIT educators, the company has served some 2.5 million learners. With a focus on digital-first learning resources — from academic courseware to professional development courses — MindEdge’s approach to best practices in online education focuses on learners’ needs across the spectrum of higher education, professional development, skills training, and continuing education. MindEdge is based in Waltham, Mass.


Media Contact:
Inkhouse (for MindEdge)