Unifying the community college experience: Initiative builds pathways from non-credit to credit courses

By Diana Fedinec

Computer Software Specialist is one of the workforce-ready stackable credentials offered at Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Computer Software Specialist is one of the
workforce-ready stackable credentials offered at
Southwest Tennessee Community College.

Southwest Tennessee Community College has been on a mission to reimagine the community college experience. In a significant leap towards enhancing educational opportunities for Tennessee high school and college students and the general public, the college has introduced an innovative approach to bridge the gap between non-credit and credit courses.

Individuals enrolled at Southwest now have the opportunity to earn a college credential – whether you sign up for a non-credit, industry-focused or technical training program or credit-bearing course leading to an associate degree.

Many high-demand occupations today require skills training at the certificate and associate level. According to the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), too few Tennesseans have neither and many students leave college without a credential. Southwest recognizes this urgency and aims to create a seamless connection between non-credit and credit courses, marking a significant paradigm shift. Fueling this initiative is a $550,000 Reimagining the Community College Experience (RCC) grant awarded to Southwest by TBR. 

Historically, workforce and traditional programs at Southwest operated in silos, with students categorized as either non-credit or credit, leading to a fragmented experience. The RCC grant is a catalyst for change, fostering collaboration and alignment between the two systems to eliminate gaps in student learning. The vision is to brand Southwest as the premier “Workforce Solutions Center of the Mid-South.”

Amy Shead, associate vice president of Workforce Development and Career & Technical Education, emphasizes the importance of this redesign. "This is a significant change in our business model. We're ensuring that students, regardless of their entry point, experience the full benefits of being a Southwest student."

While Southwest has traditionally offered non-credit workforce development courses to enhance skills and employability, the college is now taking a proactive role in ensuring that all students are well-informed about the broader educational landscape. Enrollees in non-credit courses receive comprehensive information about related associate degree and certificate programs, and meet with career, admissions and financial aid advisors.

Workforce students can achieve stackable credentials in academic programs like the Pharmacy Technician program. “Typically, a workforce student would come in, earn a credential, and depart the college. That won’t necessarily be the case going forward,” Shead said. “Now, for example, if a student is preparing to earn a medical billing and coding certificate, we’ll start the conversation about how they can earn credits from their non-credit workforce experience toward earning an associate degree through the division of business and technologies.” 

A key component of the RCC initiative is the integration of workforce certificate courses into the initial semesters of a student's journey. “A target audience for this is first-time freshmen who may exit the college early due to extenuating circumstances and challenges,” Shead said. “By embedding credentials into the first and second semesters of school, they can receive tangible benefits much earlier. Southwest is one of the first community colleges in Tennessee to merge its workforce and traditional programs together.”

The initiative, which began in fall semester, also aligns with Southwest's commitment to making education relevant to students' lived experiences and future careers. With a focus on relevance and flexibility, Southwest is creating pathways for stackable credentials, enabling students to seamlessly progress from certificates to associate degrees and beyond. Shead said her department, Southwest Workforce and Community Solutions, can see more than 3,000 students in a year. “Many of the students are taking online courses so we don’t get to interact with the student except for registration. Through this new process, we are reaching out to them to let them know that we have certificates or degrees related to their course of study.” Shead said the department also offers customized training for businesses and organizations, employability assessments and soft skills training, each of which is an opportunity to introduce Southwest’s stackable credentials.

One such example is the Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) workforce development program, completable in just 12 weeks. CCMA graduates aspiring to enter the health care field can seamlessly transition into the college’s Allied Health programs. Once they complete the CCMA, take an assessment and do their clinical rotation, students can leverage their Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) credits toward a pharmacy technician, radiological technician or medical laboratory technician associate degree. The CCMA program is merely one among numerous non-credit courses offered by the workforce development department. With hundreds of courses available, individuals seeking to refine workplace skills or delve into new areas of expertise will find a plethora of options.

 A Southwest student examines specimens during a Medical Laboratory Technician class.
 A Southwest student examines specimens during a
Medical Laboratory Technician class.

Shead says blending the college’s non-credit and credit courses is a highly collaborative process between Southwest Workforce and Community Solutions, and the rest of the college’s academic instructors and faculty members. “We share information to ensure the smoothest possible transition and seamless pathway for students. We are currently implementing this curriculum redesign in other departments such as health care, information technology, business, machining and others with plans to expand across the college.”

As Southwest pioneers this comprehensive approach to education, students are encouraged to explore their desired occupations, with the assurance that Southwest will provide them with career pathways, short-term certificates, and long-term workforce-ready credentials.

Southwest is not merely redefining education; it is building bridges to futures filled with opportunity, empowerment, and success.

For information about Southwest Workforce and Community Solutions,
contact Amy Shead at ashead@southwest.tn.edu.