We hear a lot about reinventing college and how we might better design the journey from school to work. Some students want faster or more experiential pathways to prosperity, re-entry points after stop-outs or opportunities for lifelong learning. “Non-traditional pathways” is a phrase you’ll hear a lot if you hang around policy and design folks who are thinking about broadening “attainment of degrees” to include meaningful credentials that lead to career readiness. This broader college success definition is not a cop out—it’s a recognition that technology, access to micro-credentials, and access to modular learning generally are blurring the lines between vocational training, liberal arts exploration, and 21st century skill building because, increasingly, students are in a position to order all these off the menu.

Lumina Foundation strategists Holly Zanville and Amber Garrison Duncan are in the thick of these designs, and the Lab caught up with them recently to help us build a list of the most promising ways that institutions, students, and third parties are piecing together non-traditional paths to meaningful credentials. Here’s a take on our “Top 12,” but we welcome your tweaks, additions, and favorite examples.


Competency Model for the Energy Industry

Rey Garcia, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, argues that stacking credentials in clusters recommended by industry allows higher education to “act in concert with industry to ensure that standards of quality and rigor are attached to any certification.”

Stackable Credentials Pathways

Along the traditional pathway (which culminates in an associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree), students interested in certain jobs may need specific, industry-awarded credentials (e.g., the CPA for Accounting majors). Combining the traditional pathway with these industry-specific pathways helps students effectively stack credentials in a meaningful way. The energy industry has come together to create a great example (the rainbow-pyramid figure) of a competency map that provides a guide for educators and students.

Non-Credit to Credit Pathways

Most colleges offer non-credit coursework, which in some cases, surprisingly accounts for up to 50% of all their offerings (including industry-specific certificates, trainings, and curricula). Combined with options like Prior Learning Assessment, colleges can construct pathways that direct students from non-credit classes into credit-bearing coursework. Mary Alice McCarthy of the New America Foundation argues: “Building assessment-based linkages between the credit and non-credit programs enables colleges to preserve the best of both worlds: 1) workforce programs that are timely and meet the needs of local employers and job seekers for specific skills and credentials, and 2) academically rigorous programs in which student learning outcomes are transparent and measurable.”

Accelerated Degree Programs

Similar to offering students a bachelor’s and master’s in five years, schools have also designed accelerated degree programs that offer students associate degrees after one year. Ivy Tech’s Associate Accelerated Program (ASAP) “provides Ivy Tech Community College students with the opportunity to earn your degree and begin your career in one year.” Ivy Tech emphasizes mentorship, guidance, and career-goal alignment to achieve an 86% attainment and persistence outcome. Although successful, a critical challenge is how to scale a program whose success is based upon high-touch.

Guided Pathways

Guided pathwaysLike Google Maps directing you from point A to B, guided pathways challenge students to develop strategic plans for completion at the genesis of their higher education journeys. By developing plans early on, students are more likely to sort through the often-confusing menu of courses they can take ‒ and persist, complete, and feel satisfied with their program, as well as make better informed financial decisions regarding their education. The Community College Research Center (affiliated with Teachers College of Columbia University) identifies how guided pathways, particularly for community college students, can better support students by redesigning the structure of academic programs, student intake, instruction, and progress monitoring in a way that supports student navigation towards success. Results from Guided Pathways at Miami Dade College have so far proved successful: for example, from 2011 to 2012, retention was 8 percentage points higher for students who developed an early plan with an advisor, and more than twice as many academic plans were completed.

Transfer Pathways

Several states, including those with large higher education enrollments like Ohio and North Carolina, have designed strategic transfer pathways for students. These leverage the high transfer rates of community colleges to four-year programs, allowing students to complete their associate degree as an interim en route to the bachelor’s by combing credits earned at both the community college and the four-year institution. In most of these transfer pathways, the community colleges are awarding the associate degree through the process of reverse transfer. As many students, particularly part-time returning adults, can take 8-10 years to finish a bachelor’s, earning an associate degree along the way is a well-deserved and motivational milestone. Credit When It’s Due (CWID) is a national grant-funded opportunity awarded to 15 states to design, test and implement “reverse transfer” degree programs.

Work-to-Learn and Service Learning

In addition to entering higher education with prior work, students also acquire work experiences during their education careers in the form of internships, apprenticeships, externships, part-or full-time work while enrolled, and other similar opportunities. These work-to-learn pathways recognize out-of-classroom work experiences, including the skills students acquire and the credentials they may earn as a result of this work. In 2014, the Obama administration formally organized Apprenticeship USA, a network of colleges and apprenticeship programs that provide pathways for apprentices to higher education credentials. Another path to learning is through the Service Year Alliance, which is a bipartisan organization that seeks to engage one million young Americans each year in a service year. During that year, the learning that the individual gains while in service will be recognized, opening a pathway to college.

Prior Learning Assessment

Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) allows students to acquire credit hours by demonstrating prior learning (usually acquired from prior work experience, military service, and coursework) through rigorous assessments. In this way, PLA employs the same logic as Work-to-Learn, just flipping the coin to benefit older and returning adults. This redefines the benefits of higher education afforded to students, including practically (by saving them time and money towards a degree) and philosophically (by validating the knowledge they bring into a degree program).  Lisa Myers of Texas A&M – Texarkana explains that students can acquire PLA credit hours through testing, portfolio assessments, and certification programs.

Competency-Based Education

Eric Heiser, an Associate Dean at Salt Lake Community College, describes competency-based education (CBE) as removing time as a constant and making it a variable, focusing instead on students’ mastery of skills. CBE redefines the function of a credit from a measure of time and toward a measure of skill mastery. Although the concept has been around for decades, investment from Lumina Foundation to form the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN) has allowed CBE to enjoy a surge of interest. Started in early 2014, C-BEN today lists 30 institutions and four public systems as comprising its network. Aaron Brewer, Provost at University of Wisconsin—Extension and whose school participates in C-BEN, describes how CBE provides a route for students from continuing education (centralized at UW – Extension) to traditional degrees (e.g., a master’s in Nursing at UW – Milwaukee).

Developmental Ed Redesign

For many community college students, math remains a barrier to students getting into college-level coursework, with nearly half of students entering community college requiring remediation and only 33% of those students completing the developmental sequence. Organizations like Complete College America are on the forefront of these changes, with redesign advocates arguing for condensing remedial levels, restructuring curriculum to focus more on practical math skills (with a new focus on statistics and quantitative reasoning pathways vs. more traditional algebra and calculus pathways), and reformatting remedial coursework to better emphasize college success skills like study habits and time management.

Military Crosswalk Pathway

Click here to learn more about 'My Next Move' as pathways

13 states have developed strategic pathways for connecting veterans’ occupational specialty codes (MOS for the Army, Navy and Marines, AFSC for the Air Force) with civilian careers. The Midwestern Higher Education Compact is working with Lumina Foundation and USA Funds to form best practices and policies for successful career development among veterans-turned-students by employing military-specific pathways. If you want to visualize this Crosswalk, take a look at the “My Next Move” web app that helps veterans navigate careers by industry and their military jobs.

Applied Baccalaureate Degrees

Twenty states have approved some number of Applied Baccalaureate degree programs to be offered at various of their community colleges. States like Washington encourage enrollment and attainment in high-need career paths (in this case, nursing and teacher education) with these programs, and students enjoy degree programs that emphasize practice and application in their degree programs.

Career/Technical Pathways

A sort of amalgam of accelerated and applied degree programs, Career/Technical Pathways operate on a 2+2+2 model to connect those with only some high school education with a pathway toward an associate degree and then a bachelor’s degree for those who elect to move to the bachelor’s. These pathways tend to focus on high-demand, technical careers, particularly in automotive, health care, computer-related careers. Colleges like Butte College offer these articulation agreements, which more tightly bind the high school to college (and from associate to bachelor’s) transition.


As you peruse this list of 12, the most exciting theme is the creative problem solving on the part of learning institutions to meet students where they are. Another sub-theme is experiential learning – likely a product of the rapidly changing student profile – where more and more students are working and accessing these models as they strive toward degree completion. As more four-year universities trend toward including apprenticeships, soft skills training, and community service projects as part of the curriculum, we predict many programs will produce blended models of liberal arts training and “real world” experience. In fact, they will provide the first in the context of the second and that is how they will differentiate themselves from career training and other micro-credentialing programs. In any case, we are at sufficient level of acceptance and adoption of these programs that we can also predict that “alternative” will become part of the “traditional” pathways to a credential.