How the Pandemic Impacted Noncredit Students

President of San Diego College of Continuing Education
Vice President of Student Services at San Diego College of Continuing Education
ASCCC Noncredit, Pre-transfer, and Continuing Education Committee

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted nearly all people to rethink their livelihood as the economy was rapidly redeveloping. The pandemic caused many people to lose their income, their businesses, their education, and their homes. In October 2020, 176,000 workers were unemployed due to COVID-19 impacts in the San Diego region (Saunders, 2020). Many people desired to go back to school to advance their careers or to learn a new skill for a pandemic-proof job.

While colleges and universities across the country experienced a steep decline in enrollment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges were hit hardest with some noncredit colleges losing more than half of their student populations. As of November 2022, the California Community Colleges system, with an enrollment as high as 2.8 million in 2009, was the largest system of higher education in the country. However, its student count dropped to 1.8 million in 2022. The biggest enrollment drop was among new students who enrolled during the first year of the pandemic, when courses and services were all online. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, course withdrawals increased by 55% across the community college system during spring 2020 as Covid shuttered campuses (Burke, et. al., 2022).

San Diego College of Continuing Education (SDCCE) offers an example of the ways noncredit instruction persevered and continued to serve students through the pandemic. SDCCE is one of the largest noncredit institutions in California and a leading provider of free workforce training and classes in the California Community Colleges system. SDCCE’s adult students are among the most vulnerable populations in the state, including first generation, low-income, formerly justice-involved, dreamers, military veterans, and underrepresented students. The college offers thousands of free career certificate programs and classes in priority workforce sectors including healthcare, information technology, and skilled trades. Upon certificate completion, students are prepared to enter good paying jobs.

COVID-19 prompted every college to shut down in-person services and move to remote instruction. For example, in spring 2020, SDCCE was forced to rapidly move more than 1,000 hard-to-transition workforce training programs and basic skills classes online. Welding students were reading blueprints online to perform metal welds, and healthcare students were remotely preparing to care for patients using medical equipment and manikins at home. While online education was the key to their success to survive a global pandemic, it did not come easy. Many students persevered through hardship, but others had to remove themselves from their education due to unforeseen circumstances.

Students faced multiple challenges and obstacles in transitioning to online instruction, including access to computers and the internet. Administrators and educators opened their eyes to never before seen barriers: students would sit outside of fast-food restaurants to connect to Wi-Fi, or students chose between going to class and working a second job to buy food and pay their rent. To respond to this situation, SDCCE distributed hundreds of free laptops to adult students who needed support to access and complete remote and online classes and programs. Providing laptops allows for mobile learning, increases student remote and online engagement and retention, and thus leads to increased completion rates. SDCCE also supplied resources to provide internet access to students.

The state of emergency nationalized the long-standing need for more support of noncredit instruction inside and beyond the classroom. The bottom line quickly became how to teach adult students outside of the classroom and online and how to meet their basic needs. More than ever, schools became a haven for more than just education and workforce training. Students began turning to their schools for food, housing, and financial support. Many adult learners in noncredit programs are returning to school after years of being away from the classroom, and they are back because the traditional education system failed them in one way or another. Colleges simply cannot fail them again. All institutions must continue to address specific and critical needs beyond the classroom. And now, during this pandemic, they must offer students the final key that has been missing: an opportunity for fully online learning with the wrap-around support they need to complete comprehensive academic programs.

Danielle Nadeu is an example of a student who persevered and succeeded through the pandemic. Like many San Diego residents looking to upskill, Nadeu, an SDCCE student and an information technology (IT) manager, looked forward to being inside SDCCE’s lab classrooms but adapted to the change. SDCCE’s IT certificates are taught through an online classroom equipped with free integrated software and textbooks. Remote learning provided Nadeu with unique opportunities: recorded lectures, virtual operating machines, and free computer software. Nadeu has been working her way up the IT industry for years, a career she did not know existed as a Boston University humanities graduate. After completing the Cisco Certified Networking Associate certificate and Security Essentials certificate at SDCCE, she was offered a temporary contract through LinkedIn with Bristol Myers Squibb, a global biopharmaceutical company. Six months into her contract, Bristol Myers hired Nadeu full time as a laboratory operations systems manager.

Whereas IT classes for students like Nadeu could be presented remotely, students in hospitality and culinary arts classes needed access to hands-on learning materials. Due to barriers faced in online learning, SDCCE’s hospitality and culinary arts department hosted weekly ingredient distributions during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide students with essential food items and spices required to participate in the culinary labs. It was the only way to continue offering the culinary arts certificate program during the pandemic. It was the equitable thing to do; items like lobster and saffron are expensive.

The experience of Sarah Ramos shows how access to classroom supplies during the pandemic was also essential for students to continue their educations and launch their careers. Before achieving a culinary arts certificate at SDCCE, Ramos worked in human resources for two decades. Following her education at SDCCE, Ramos is now a pastry chef de partie for San Diego’s three Michelin Star fine-dining restaurant, Addison.

Like many other institutions, SDCCE kept its doors open virtually through the global pandemic. SDCCE employees had to determine how to serve the state’s most vulnerable populations, many of whom do not speak English as their first language and have never been in an online classroom environment. Noncredit education reaches adult students of all socioeconomic backgrounds, especially those who lack resources or support to go to school, and can help them achieve a professional certificate in an online environment.

SDCCE and other colleges will continue to provide noncredit career education and other programs at no cost. Most career training programs have returned to on-campus instruction, and, due to demand for online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, many classes have changed to fully online or hybrid modes of instruction. The need for basic needs resources has increased monumentally, and the mode of delivery has also changed.

Career education remains one of the most valuable investments a person can work toward, as specialized and relevant training prepares graduates for life-changing employment opportunities in today's priority workforce sectors. Other higher education institutions can benefit from online learning as long as they are willing to adapt to meet the needs of the students and are able to allocate funding and resources toward basic needs services.


Burke, M., Willis, D., & Truong, D. (2022, Nov. 18). California community colleges eye a different future amid pandemic disruption. Edsource.
Saunders, M. (2020, Oct. 15). San Diego economy to lose $12.4 billion this year due to pandemic. ABC10 News San Diego,