What is a Non-Degree Program at a University?

Image of college students for our FAQ on What is a Non-Degree Program at a University
An image of a college student for our FAQ about What is a Non-Degree Program at a University

A non-degree program at a university is, in essence, any course or class taken without the goal of accumulating credit hours toward a degree. Students who take non-degree program courses often desire information for general knowledge. They are lifelong learners looking to improve skills for work-related purposes. They have no intention of using the course knowledge to earn a two-year, four-year, or post-graduate degree. In fact, they often experience difficulties and disappointment if they attempt to transfer a non-matriculated or non-degree course toward a degree program.


In addition to lifelong learners, a wide range of individuals with various goals and reasons are attracted to non-degree programs. Many of these students are professionals in fields where earning an industry certification:

  • improves pay
  • provides opportunities for promotion
  • gives credibility among peers and clients

Moreover, non-degree students include individuals seeking skills needed to enter into a new career or help with establishing and growing their own small business. It’s easy to forget that there are several reasons to take courses at a postsecondary institution in addition to earning a degree.

Why Is No Credit Given?

There are many reasons why no credit is given for non-degree courses. Credit courses are specifically designed to be counted towards the completion of an academic credential, such as a degree or academic certificate. Because credit courses count towards the completion of an academic credential, they are required to meet specific standards in terms of:

  • content
  • rigor
  • learning objectives

These are set by accreditation agencies and the institution itself.

Non-credit students are not seeking degrees, so courses do not need this credit-bearing designation. Additionally, non-credit courses vary widely in length, scope, and content. Also, because they are not counted toward a degree, there is no standardization that requires courses to be able to transfer from institution to institution or to meet the standards set forth for credit-bearing classes. For example, a small business marketing course may vary from institution to institution, making it a unique course that is not taught at any other school.

Popular Non-Degree Program Courses

Automotive Industry

Non-degree automotive courses range from classes that lead to industry certification to classes for the lifelong learner who is interested in how to conduct basic car maintenance, such as changing the oil and other light repairs and preventative measures. Industry certification courses can include:

  • state inspection certification
  • CDL licensure
  • auto dealers licensing

These courses are typically offered at two-year community colleges and can range from just a few days to several weeks in length. Other automotive courses include motorcycle training and freight broker and agent training. These specialized courses are often a shorter and less expensive route to a better-paying job or a promotion than earning a degree would be.

Business Services

Business services range from obtaining notary public status to becoming a certified swimming pool inspector and operator. In particular, notary public courses are very popular and cover the legal and ethical obligations in a particular state.

An image of a college student for our FAQ about What is a Non-Degree Program at a University

Career Development

Job seekers can benefit greatly from career development in non-degree courses. They’re relatively inexpensive and taught by professionals. Topics include:

  • job interviewing
  • resume writing
  • cover-letter writing

They also cover job-seeking skills that are often overlooked, such as how to use technology effectively when seeking jobs and effective use of social media like LinkedIn. Some courses may be specialized for job seekers in a specific industry, such as information technology.

English as a Second Language (ESL)

Students seeking to learn English can find English as a second language (ESL) or English as a foreign language (EFL) courses at nearly every community college. Students are typically grouped according to their native language. Students are placed in courses according to their current skill level and progress through each level. Most are working adults balancing family and job responsibilities. Instructional courses are scheduled throughout the day and evening to accommodate people’s schedules.

Foreign Language

Foreign language classes vary by region and are based on demand. Common languages include Korean and Spanish. These classes are for those with no previous experience who have the goal of establishing basic vocabulary and conversational skills. Other languages available include:

  • French
  • Italian
  • Chinese
  • German

In addition to language skills, students learn about various cultural aspects of the country of origin, including customs and cuisine.

High-School Completion

While most community colleges have GED courses, some offer high-school completion classes. The difference between GED and high-school completion is that the student who completed the high-school completion program will graduate with an actual high-school diploma, rather than a GED. Prospective students take assessment tests to see what level they are for each subject. Then they take classes based upon the results.

IT Courses

IT courses are the bread and butter for many institutions, when it comes to non-degree programs. From learning basic information technology skills to earning an industry certificate, there are several courses to choose from, depending on your needs. While there are hundreds of courses available, we break down some of the most popular courses below.

Adobe After Effects – Adobe After Effects is a common software used in television and film to create:

  • special effects
  • online content
  • presentations

Students typically learn the basic functions of:

  • animation
  • 3D imaging
  • advanced editing techniques

AutoCAD Fundamentals – Students learn basic computer-aided design and drafting concepts and skills in a hands-on environment. They progress from making basic shapes to more complex drawings. This course typically does not lead to certification. Rather, it’s a gateway course to prepare students for more advanced techniques.

Bookkeeping Fundamentals – This course teaches basic accounting and bookkeeping skills and concepts using accounting software. While software choice varies, the standard is Quickbooks. The course is geared toward individuals with little to no experience using the software.

CompTIA Security Analyst CySA+ – This course teaches fundamental skills in cybersecurity. Individuals  will want to take the course as preparation for the CompTIA CySA+ industry certification exam. By the end of the course, students should be able to pass the CompTIA CySA+ exam.

IT Support Technician – An IT support technician course is typically one of a series of courses that provide individuals with the career-readiness skills needed to pass certificate courses in tech support. Students get technical skills and knowledge in fundamental areas. They also learn effective communication and customer-service skills to properly interact with:

  • clients
  • stakeholders
  • internal personnel

Web Programming Using Python and Django – With the growth of Python and Django, this type of course is generally for people who have foundational skills using both programs. Students learn intermediate and advanced skills using the Python programming language in the Django framework. Students should be able to create real-world projects to use for both personal and business applications.

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Job-Seeking Assistance

These classes can focus on a particular skill, such as resume creation and cover letter writing or job interviewing. However,  they may also encompass the entire job-seeking process from initial searching  through the interviewing process. These classes are generally for individuals with an established career path. Classes range in length from one day to several weeks. The classes are very hands on. Students create drafts of resumes and practice their job interview skills with the instructor and their peers. With the advent of technology within the job-seeking process, new courses on how to “hack” job-seeking and tracking systems are becoming popular as well.

Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning classes have a wide range of course topics, and they’re designed for recreational enjoyment. Some of these courses include:

Acting – These courses teach students the fundamentals of acting for the stage and screen. Students learn the emotional preparation needed to deliver effective performances in an authentic manner.

Creative Writing – Designed with the aspiring writer in mind, these courses focus on the creative process of writing a variety of different materials, including:

  • novels
  • short stories
  • poems

Students learn characterization, plotting, and basic editing.

Digital Photography – Courses designed for recreational photography focus on using digital photography equipment and editing programs, in addition to techniques that result in professional-quality digital photographs. The emphasis is on learning fundamental concepts and skills, in addition to the basic technology.

Public Speaking – Courses teach individuals how to become strong public speakers in various contexts, such as the workplace and special occasions. Students learn the speech-writing process and practice their delivery of prepared speeches in class.

Other programs and courses might include:

Pet Industry

Pet industry courses generally focus on dog grooming and obedience training. Dog-grooming courses cover basic and advanced techniques to use on a variety of breeds. It also looks at the business side of how to run a successful dog grooming business. Obedience training courses teach students how to train dogs, then pass the knowledge of how to control the animal on to the pet owner.

Real Estate

Real-estate classes prepare students to pass the real-estate licensing exam to obtain their residential license, allowing them to sell homes. Courses cover the processes, procedures, and laws governing the sale of a home, as well as how to succeed in a real-estate career.

Retirement and Investing

Money- and wealth-management courses focus on retirement planning and the basics of investing in a variety of instruments, such as:

  • stocks
  • bonds
  • mutual funds
  • other speculative vehicles

Small Business Assistance

Small-business classes are wide ranging and focus on several topics, including:

  • writing and submitting a successful business plan
  • funding sources
  • tax preparation
  • marketing
  • governmental regulation

Classes are open to all aspiring and current small-business owners, with some focusing on assisting women and minorities.


Personal-wellness classes range from yoga to meditation. Students learn the basics of various wellness techniques that will perpetuate physical and mental health in an active environment.

An image of college students for our FAQ about What is a Non-Degree Program at a University

The Financial-Aid Impact

Non-degree programs and courses are usually not covered by financial aid. The GI Bill is one exception. However, the non-degree courses accepted under this federal program are limited to vocational training courses, not university classes. It’s common for many institutions to use their own institutional funding from sources other than financial aid to help students pay for non-degree courses. Funds from endowments, private donors, and scholarship monies can be used to provide assistance. In addition to non-financial-aid monies, the tuition and fees for these courses are typically very affordable. Most people can cover the costs themselves out of pocket.

Underclass Eligibility Only?

Many students believe that non-degree programs at universities are available only to undergraduate students. The truth is that post-baccalaureate students are also able to take part in non-degree courses, but most of them concentrate on the intensive study required to obtain a master’s degree or doctorate. Those higher degrees are expensive, and fewer post-baccalaureate students accept the expense when the non-matriculated course does nothing to further their immediate goals. In some instances, potential graduate students may take a course in a graduate program they are considering but are not yet ready to apply to. In addition, many community colleges offer non-degree courses that can be used by students who are trying to complete high school but do not want to go the GED route.

When Non-Degree Program Courses Can Be Utilized

At times, students need specific courses but don’t need the credit hours. For instance, students applying to post-graduate studies might fall into this category. Taking a needed course to fill an academic requirement fulfills that course requirement, but the student already has an undergraduate degree, so the credit hours aren’t important. Most of the time, the non-matriculated course is taken between the undergraduate and the post-graduate periods.

Summary of Non-Degree Programs

If you want to educate yourself on a topic, but you have no desire or need to work toward a formal degree, you might consider applying for a non-degree program at your preferred university. Understand that the application and course fees still apply and that you stand last in the placement priority line, but patience and perseverance often reap rewards.

As you can see, colleges that offer non-degree programs meet numerous needs of people in their communities. Whether it’s recreational enjoyment or preparation for career advancement, non-degree programs have carved out their own special niche in the higher-education landscape.

By BDP Staff

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This concludes our article answering the question, “What is a non-degree program at a university?”

Brenda Rufener

Julie McCaulley

Carrie Sealey-Morris