Revamping short-term credential pathways


An initiative to develop short-term credentials that better serve employers and learners has published a brief that highlights key elements gleaned over its first year from participating community colleges and their partners.

In fall 2020, Education Design Lab (EDL) announced the inaugural Community College Growth Engine Fund cohort, which included six selected institutions. The colleges received $100,000 and hands-on support from EDL to implement a “micro-pathways” project that connects low-wage and unemployed workers to work-relevant credentials, leading to quality job opportunities. (Micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials that are delivered in a flexible way, achieved within less than a year and result in a job at or above the local median wage.)

On Tuesday, EDL released a brief that includes general findings after the first year of the initiative as well as profiles of the participants’ projects.

Benefits for learners

The brief highlights key elements for the initiative’s three main stakeholders: learners, employers and colleges. Lessons learned about learners attitudes and needs include:

  • Learners need practical pathways with a clear return on investment (ROI). Learners want to understand the total cost of pathways, in both time and money, as well as the value gained from the pathway, the brief says. “In order to understand that value, learners emphasized a need for high-level details from the outset of the program including skills, educational and career steps, job opportunities, and wage gains,” it says.
  • Learners need flexible micro-pathways that meet them where they are in their journey. Learners liked the flexibility offered in the micro-pathways they reviewed. “This meant flexibility in format and timing — part of the core design criteria. This also includes acknowledging and building on existing skills learners developed through previous life and work experiences,” the brief says.
  • Learners want and need deeper and more extensive work-based learning. Learners made an important distinction between having employers visit classes as guest speakers and being able to have actual, immersive experiences in the career field they are studying. “They want to learn the industry jargon, meet people doing the work, and begin to understand the culture, all while establishing contacts to build a professional network that could help them land their first job in the field,” according to the brief.

What employers said

EDL also compiled a of what participating employers need from employees.

  • Employers need learners to have work-based learning experiences. Similar to what learners said they needed, employers look for learners who have gained hands-on or work-based experience to apply their skills. “Employers seek applicants who have work-based experience whether it’s an internship, a job, volunteering, or a personal project they’ve built on their own,” the brief says.  “Applicants not only need to have this experience but also need to communicate their competencies and experiences through something like a portfolio.”
  • Employers see the micro-pathway co-design process as transformative to deepening their relationships with community colleges. The brief notes that employers have long provided guidance to educators on workforce preparation, but traditionally, these exchanges have been episodic and limited. The initiative’s model of “transforming that relationship to one of co-designer elevates what only businesses know about their technical and other skill needs and weaves it into the program development process,” it says.
  • Employers strongly value training and credentialing for 21st-century skills like communication, critical thinking and intercultural fluency. Employer partners noted that although technical skills are essential for obtaining a job, keeping a job requires skills such as good communication, which includes understanding etiquette such as sending follow-up emails and thank-you notes.

Moving the dial

Participating community colleges see the micro-pathway design process as a gateway to institutional transformation, especially in development connections between non-credit and credit course, the brief says.

“As most micro-pathways start in the noncredit division, the design teams were able to set up articulation processes that are learner friendly and supported by faculty,” the brief says. “These design ‘channels’ have also helped to further socialize and bring to life the value of embedding 21st century skill micro-credentials across curricula to ensure learner competencies are visible to employers,” it says.

Related article: Have we found the gateway to transform community colleges?

Participating colleges also used their micro-pathways to further collaborate with other mission-aligned regional ecosystem initiatives, the brief says.

“As community colleges are part of the public workforce system, they are often a core component of many system-level initiatives related to postsecondary education and workforce development, which can be difficult to map and connect,” it says. “However, the design criteria of micro-pathways and the process used to develop them has been leveraged to help institutions further advance other strategic initiatives well beyond the scope of their participation in the Fund.”

It gives the examples of Achieve60AZ for Pima Community College and 60x30TX in Texas, which both aim to enable 60% of adults to have postsecondary credentials by 2030. Meanwhile, City University of New York colleges have partnered with the New York Jobs CEO Council to focus on pathways to in-demand occupations with the city’s 28 largest employers.

The brief also notes the importance of continued support from college leadership for the efforts.

“Clear and consistent messaging from leadership to encourage active participation and buy-in to the design process is even more critical given the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” it says. “Leaders in the cohort have expressed their clear intention to use the micro-pathway model and design process as a beachhead to broader institutional transformation.”

A closer look

The brief also spotlights some of the goals and works among the six colleges. For example, one of Austin Community College’s (ACC) top goals for its project is to make the noncredit-to-credit articulation process seamless to learners. Micro-pathway learners start their programs on the noncredit side and can complete two certificates, which articulates to 14 or 19 credits toward a higher-level certificate and/or degree for a related occupation. If learners want to continue in the near- or long-term, upon earning at least one credit, all 14 or 19 credits will automatically transfer to their certificate and/or degree program, the brief says.

One innovation design element for ACC’s project is a new last-dollar scholarship fund for learners who may not otherwise enroll in its micro-pathways. It was started with a $40,000 donation from a local community member and is being supplemented by a foundation gift and some funding from the college’s EDL grant.

Next cohort of colleges

EDL also on Tuesday announced the colleges that will be part of the next cohort and their sector focus areas. They are:

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