Country’s largest community colleges work to expand microcredentials

Six of the largest community colleges and systems in the U.S. are working to build—and market and support—new short, work-aligned pathways with help from the Education Design Lab.

American adults consistently say that they want shorter, faster paths to college credentials—and ultimately to career and economic advancement. For the past year, the Education Design Lab has been working with a group of the country’s largest community colleges and systems to design new microcredentials that meet that need.

The big idea: The six institutions created 30 new pathways, with a focus on high-demand fields and work-based learning. They also experimented with new approaches to marketing, delivery, and support.

Austin Community College, for example, launched a scholarship fund for noncredit students. Pima Community College got creative about marketing. And Prince George’s Community College hired new advisors to specifically serve students in its new microcredential programs.

Student response has been mixed. Pima overshot expected enrollment by 400 students, while Ivy Tech Community college has seen strong demand for its truck driving credential but softer demand in other programs. It’s still early days, however—many of the credentials are in their soft launch phase and 10 have yet to debut.

The lab released a report today sharing insights gained over the past year of work on the project, the Community College Growth Engine Fund, and announcing its expansion to four new colleges.

The details: The member colleges have designed and implemented a series of pathways for careers in high-demand fields in their area with support and a grant from the Education Design Lab.

Lisa Larson, the head of the Growth Engine Fund, said the grant program was created in part to better serve Americans underrepresented in higher education by creating more accessible pathways. The lab originally expected the community colleges to create just 13 micropathways—but the cohort has initiated 30 pathways over six different career sectors, including technology, healthcare, and construction.

Micropathways, as defined by the fund, are two or more stackable credentials that can be achieved within a year and lead to a job or higher wage once completed.

Twenty of the pathways created through the grant process have launched, and remaining ones will launch throughout the month. The first cohort consisted of Seattle Colleges, Pima Community College, Ivy Tech Community College, the City University of New York, Prince George’s Community College, and Austin Community College District.

The lab worked with the community colleges to understand the labor market demand in their areas, and Larson said all the credential pathways are employer validated.

The why: Students pursuing these pathways have a need for flexible ways to enter and exit their training, she said. These students want a program that works with their timeline and gives them work-based experiences that give them a clearer understanding of the career they are going into, she said.

That work will now expand with a second cohort, with the fund bringing on the Colorado Community College System, Maricopa Community Colleges, Bunker Hill Community College, and The Community College of Philadelphia.

Moving from ‘one and done’

On the ground: Leaders at Pima Community College, located near Tucson, Arizona, were drawn to the micropathways work because of its potential to dramatically improve accessibility. They used the Growth Fund to build on the universal access and universal design mission they have already been working toward.

The goal is to move away from a ‘one and done’ model, and instead allow learners to layer credentials over the course of their career. That’s needed, leaders at Pima said, in order to ensure learners of any background can achieve upward mobility and prepare for a career of constant change.

“The whole concept of universal access, universal design came to a fever pitch during the height of the pandemic,” said Ian Roark, the vice president of workforce development and strategic partnerships at Pima.

Employers are regularly revisiting what they’re looking for in talent, he said, as the pandemic continues to create turmoil and rapid change.

In designing its new pathways, Pima focused both on high-demand areas that lead to high-paying jobs and areas of existing strength. They talked with deans about what they felt confident starting on and focused there.

The college ultimately focused on pathways for automotive service technicians, industrial engineering mechanics, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, or emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

Leaning into marketing

But the real success lay in the way Pima effectively marketed to a new group of potential students. In addition to their outreach, the college was completely transparent about the cost and length of each program, and what it could mean for students.

“It’s the right thing to do to be honest and open with people about what things are going to cost,” Roark said.

The response was overwhelming. Within the first five weeks of targeted marketing within this pilot year 1,000 new students responded and registered. That was well above the 600 participants they had anticipated.

“I’m honestly very proud,” Roark said. “The scale is there. When we think small and design small, we are going to get small results. When we think big, design big, and launch something big that we’re committed to, we are going to get big results.”

Key factor: The focus on marketing was intentional across the initiative, Larson said. Colleges worked with a marketing consultant to zero in on target partners and learners, and to think strategically about where they were located in the local community. They then designed messaging to target those potential students.

“In higher education it’s just not true to say ‘you build it and they will come,’” Larson said. “Colleges, as they went through this process, were thinking intentionally about what is the message, how do we get to the learners that are so critical to serve.” 

Meeting shifting employer needs

Connections to employers also have been key for the initiative. Those partnerships are essential for serving workers looking to reskill or upskill, Larson said. And, she said, employers are reporting a deeper level of connection to the community colleges in the fund.

At Ivy Tech Community College, the statewide system in Indiana, leaders are integrating noncredit and credit programs to make the potential transition from noncredit to for-credit programs smooth for students. 

Stacy Townsley, vice president of adult strategy and statewide partnerships at Ivy Tech, said that they have been seeing growing support for education for incumbent workers, including short-term credentials.

“What we are seeing is a shift,” Townsley said. “Employers are wanting to skill up their incumbent workforce because it’s difficult to hire those.”

Ivy Tech’s commercial truck driving training program, CDL+, has been the most successful thus far. It soft launched in the fall and has just under 100 participants across three of the system’s campuses. There are fewer than 25 participants in each of the other microcredential programs in IT and advanced manufacturing, but Townsley hopes to and anticipates seeing those numbers grow.

The system has been a leader in offering short-term, workforce-focused credentials, and the state provides a Workforce Ready Grant for learners interested in those pathways. Each of the new microcredentials has a component that is eligible to be covered by that grant.

Confidence and skills

Parting thought: The work-based learning element of the new pathways was one of the things students said they wanted and valued the most.

Students get experience working alongside full-time employees—which lets them learn the cultural aspect of the field and build relationships with potential coworkers and employers. That, Larson said, helps learners build the confidence to go into the workplace and see a future for themselves there.

Learn more: On January 19, the lab will bring together employers, college leaders, and funders for a virtual discussion of the initiative that is open to anyone who registers.

“I’m proud of all of the colleges and what they were able to do,” said Larson. “You know you’ve done it right when you have so many people invested.”

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