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Education Design Lab’s micro-pathways initiative welcomes largest cohort of community colleges yet

40+ colleges are transforming through the learner-centered design process

WASHINGTON, D.C. (JANUARY 26, 2023) — Education Design Lab, a national nonprofit that designs, implements, and scales new learning models for higher education and the future of work, today announced the third cohort of colleges participating in the nationally recognized Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF, or the Fund) initiative that designs micro-pathways, a new class of credentials.

Why it matters

Community colleges are in a unique position to improve social mobility and reduce economic disparities. The future demands a system of higher education that is more flexible, affordable, and inclusive for new majority learner-earners. Over the last three years, the Fund has supported nearly 25 colleges to design over 50 micro-pathways to connect low-wage and entry-level workers to in-demand jobs that pay at-or-above median wage and put them on a path toward a degree.

The third cohort — the largest to date — is starting with 18 colleges in February 2023 and will likely grow to over 30 institutions by late spring. The new cohort includes three state systems/districts of community colleges, which will help sustain innovations through system-level transformation.

Meet Cohort III

The latest community colleges to join the Fund include:

SUNY (State University of New York system)

  • Ulster
  • Westchester
  • Dutchess
  • Orange
  • Rockland
  • Sullivan

Alamo Colleges District

  • Northeast Lakeview College
  • Northwest Vista College
  • Palo Alto College
  • St. Philip’s College
  • San Antonio College


  • Alexandria Technical and Community College
  • Central Lakes College
  • Hennepin Technical College
  • Saint Paul College

Northern Virginia Community College

Community College of Rhode Island

College of Eastern Idaho



SUNY Chancellor John B. King, Jr.: “As we continue to address the needs of the workforce of today and tomorrow, community colleges are at the forefront of that conversation. SUNY’s 30 community colleges open the doors for post-secondary education by offering certificate programs and associate degrees, as well as transfer and career services. Education must be affordable and inclusive because it provides an opportunity for social mobility and a chance at breaking down barriers for those who have been historically marginalized. To that end, these schools are beacons lighting the way for students who may otherwise have thought college not to be attainable. SUNY’s community colleges are poised to increase student success by offering courses and credentials which directly translate to the needs of employers from all different backgrounds, including technical and vocational fields. I thank SUNY Ulster, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland, and Sullivan community colleges for being a part of the third cohort in the nationally recognized Community College Growth Engine Fund.”


Bill Hughes, President + CEO of Education Design Lab: “The world of work has never before put such an onus on skills as exist today. Learners and earners need to show evidence of skills to be eligible for advancement in their career journeys. Employers need workers whose skills align with their talent requirements. The traditional degree alone does not solve for either of these, as it may be too time-intensive or expensive, and it may not align with the fast-changing needs of the labor market. The response to these challenges must be a shift to open up more affordable, accessible, job-aligned routes to employment opportunities. The work of the Community College Growth Engine Fund does that, and the Lab is excited to launch its next and largest cohort.”


Dr. Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund: “Learner attitudes about school and work are shifting, employers are at the table looking for new solutions, and community colleges are on the brink of change. There has never been a more pressing moment to figure out what the next generation of community colleges are and, importantly, how to get there. So far, we’ve seen firsthand how the Fund’s micro-pathway model and design process can serve as a gateway to community college transformation.”


What are micro-pathways?

Co-designed with learners and employers, micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials, including a 21st century skill micro-credential, that are flexibly delivered to be achieved within less than a year and result in a job at or above the local median wage, and start (l)earners on the path to an associate degree.

By the numbers
  • 41 community colleges as of February 2023 and counting
  • 30 micro-pathways launched
  • 20 micro-pathways in design
  • 5+ high-growth industry sectors including healthcare, information technology, construction, manufacturing, and business
  • 150+ employers engaged
  • 4,000 (l)earners impacted
What’s next

Through this initiative, colleges are realizing micro-pathways are a gateway to further innovation and transformation. In recognition of this, the Lab has created the Transformation Network for the Fund’s Cohort 1 colleges to continue to expand and scale their micro-pathway work and focus on ensuring the visibility and portability of these new credentials.

Our funders

We want to thank the Charles Koch Foundation,, and the Walton Family Foundation for their early investment as well as the Arizona Community Foundation, Jeffrey H. and Shari L. Aronson Family Foundation, Ascendium Education Group, Autodesk, The Beacon Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Citizens, deLaski Family Foundation, Garcia Foundation, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation, Robin Hood Foundation, and the ZOMA Foundation.

Go deeper

Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and download our January 2022 Design Insights Brief, which features learnings from our first cohort.


About Education Design Lab: The Lab is a national nonprofit that co-designs, prototypes, and tests education-to-workforce models through a human-centered design process focused on understanding learners’ experiences, addressing equity gaps in higher education, and connecting new majority learners to economic mobility. The Community College Growth Engine Fund, led by Dr. Lisa Larson, is a design accelerator set up just before the pandemic to help community colleges lean into a future role as regional talent agents. Learn more:

Join the Lab’s #InnovatorNetwork: LinkedIn + Twitter + email newsletter

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Education Design Lab launches XCredit Skills Validation Network

The Skills Validation Network seeks to enable equitable opportunity for individuals who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs), as opposed to a bachelor’s degree

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Jan. 19, 2023) — Education Design Lab (the Lab), a national nonprofit helping colleges and employers design equity-based education solutions toward the future of work, today announced the XCredit Skills Validation Network (SVN).

The mission

The Skills Validation Network will expand the methods, tools, and opportunities available to validate skills gained through work and life experience, leveraging the Lab’s 21st century skills competency framework, the XCredit ecosystem, and the network’s collective resources and expertise.

Why it matters

So far, the network has brought together innovators from more than 10 organizations in service of expanding opportunity and improving economic mobility for STARs, talented individuals Skilled Through Alternative Routes, as opposed to a bachelor’s degree. STARs comprise half of the U.S. workforce — and they have developed skills on the job, through military service, in community college, or through other means.

The field is coalescing around the need to shift to a more equitable, skills-based, learn-and-earn ecosystem. But it’s not enough for our future system to be skills-based. It must be VALIDATED skills-based. This means that skills gained and credentialed, and then shared with employers, must first be validated.

What is skills validation?

The process by which an assertion (“I assert that I have a skill!”) is substantiated.

  • Typically conducted by qualified third party
  • Creates trust that individual possesses a skill
  • Based on a shared understanding of meaning of a skill
  • Indicates level and context of a skill
  • Can be conducted through various methods

The Skills Validation Network will serve as a conduit to exploration and collaboration between:

  • Career navigation systems
  • Job placement and worker advancement organizations
  • Skills data sets and platforms
  • Skills wallets and ecosystems

“The current talent marketplace devalues lived experience. Scalable skills validation empowers those who have previously been unable to document their skills and showcase what they know and can do, which limits access to employment opportunities. When shared with employers, this validated, digital evidence of skills can signal to diversify and expand credible talent pools,” said Naomi Boyer, Executive Director, Digital Transformation, at the Lab.

“The future skills-based ecosystem must honor the hard-earned skills gained through experience, while also building confidence in employers who are depending on those skills for the success of their organizations. The Skills Validation Network will help us achieve both,” said Tara Laughlin, the SVN leader and Senior Education Designer at the Lab.

What’s next

Now through June 2023, the network will:

  • Collectively prototype a set of new skills validation tools and methods.
  • Provide thought leadership to drive a national discourse.

Beyond June, the SVN will begin piloting and iterating on these prototypes, working to bring the most effective to scale.

Go deeper

For more information about the XCredit Skills Visibility Network, visit

This work is made possible by the generous funding and support from and program officer Sean Murphy.

About Education Design Lab: The Lab is a nonprofit intermediary that designs, tests, and scales new models + tools with and for new majority learners that address systemic and environmental barriers to success and help to prepare learners, educators, and employers for the emerging digital skills economy. Learn more:

Join the Lab’s Innovator Network: LinkedIn + Twitter + email newsletter

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Let’s talk LERs: Experience You virtual launch is Jan. 25

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at 2 p.m. ET, the T3 Innovation Network and Education Design Lab will launch Experience You.

The current state learning and employment records (LERs) target newly issued records rather than previous achievements. Experience You is a new initiative that will explore how new technologies can convert massive amounts of unstructured data (e.g., transcripts, resumes, and employment history) associated with an individual’s education, employment, and experience into structured, machine-actionable data about knowledge, skills, and abilities for self-verification.

Experience You seeks to galvanize a community of data and technology vendors and researchers in developing AI tools to quickly and accurately translate past education, work, and life experience into structured, machine-actionable data in the form of a useable LER.

Join us on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at 2 p.m. ET to learn more about the initiative and how you can participate.


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Education Design Lab partners with OneTen to drive economic prosperity for Black talent in the United States

Education Design Lab forms strategic partnership with nation’s leading coalition committed to hiring and advancing Black Americans without four-year degrees

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Dec. 5, 2022) — Education Design Lab (the Lab), a national nonprofit helping colleges and employers design equity-based education solutions, today announced it has joined forces with OneTen, a coalition designed to close the opportunity gap for Black talent in the United States by working with America’s leading executives, companies and talent developers to hire and advance one million Black Americans without four-year degrees into family-sustaining roles within ten years. The Lab typically engages community colleges first and identifies the right mix of employers to engage. With OneTen, the Lab is starting the process by identifying employers first and matching them with appropriate community college partners.

As an endorsed OneTen talent developer, the Lab joins a growing portfolio of leading educators, upskillers and career training providers committed to providing in-demand skills for sought-after jobs at the country’s top employers. The Lab’s long-term goal is to create a replicable process that enables OneTen employers around the nation to build sustainable talent pipelines for Black (l)earners — learners and earners — with the community colleges in their region. Specifically, the partnership will use micro-pathways, an approach launched by the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF).

Co-designed with (l)earners and employers, micro-pathways are defined as two or more stackable credentials (including at least one 21st century skill micro-credential) that can be completed in one year or less, resulting in a job at or above the local median wage, and start (l)earners on the path to an associate degree. By having employers committed to the co-design process at the start, colleges can respond more quickly to in-demand jobs. The three-year project will begin with CCGEF colleges located in four key markets:

  • Indianapolis, IN (Ivy Tech Community College )
  • New York, NY (City University of New York)
  • Philadelphia, PA (Community College of Philadelphia)
  • Washington, DC (Prince George’s Community College)

Micro-pathways offered in those regions are designed to lead to family-sustaining careers in information technology, healthcare, and manufacturing. Explore micro-pathways by industry sector here.

“The Lab is excited to partner with OneTen as part of our ongoing efforts to design education toward the future of work,” said Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. “This partnership will highlight the Lab’s leadership in skills-based education and hiring and support OneTen in reaching their goal of closing the opportunity gap for Black talent. Community colleges are best positioned to support OneTen and the Lab in this crucial mission.”

This partnership is more important than ever as the racial wealth gap in America remains vast, largely due to the lack of access to quality, well-paying jobs that do not require college degrees: 79% of jobs paying more than $50,000 require a four-year college degree, which automatically excludes the 76% of Black talent over age 25 with relevant experience who don’t have baccalaureate degrees. In an economy where Black people only own 1.5% of America’s wealth, harnessing multi-stakeholder partnerships is vital to spearheading diversity and fostering pathways to earned success.

“In today’s dynamic hiring environment, we recognize that it is absolutely essential to meet Black talent where they are in order to create equitable pathways to success,” said Maurice Jones, CEO of OneTen. “We’re thrilled to partner with the Lab to continue their work building strong talent pipelines from community colleges into some of the country’s top employers.”

The Lab and OneTen plan to empower and support the need for a diverse workforce through placement of Black talent into jobs that companies sorely need. By addressing unmet business needs, helping candidates find fulfilling employment and allowing more individuals to transition into careers with family-sustaining wages, inclusive work culture is within reach.

About Education Design Lab
The Education Design Lab (the Lab for short) is a national, nonprofit innovation engine that co-designs, validates, and scales education-to-workforce models through a human-centered design process focused on understanding learner experiences, addressing equity gaps in higher education, and accelerating economic mobility for new majority learners. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and download: Design Insights Brief: Community College Growth Engine Fund Micro-pathways: A Gateway to Community College Transformation. Join the Lab’s #InnovatorNetwork: LinkedIn + email newsletter

About OneTen
OneTen is a coalition of leading chief executives and their companies who are coming together to upskill, hire and promote one million Black individuals who do not yet have a four-year degree into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement over the next 10 years. OneTen connects employers with talent developers including leading nonprofits and other skill-credentialing organizations who support development of diverse talent. By creating more equitable and inclusive workforces, we believe we can reach our full potential as a nation of united citizens. OneTen recognizes the unique potential in everyone – every individual, every business, every community – to change the arc of America’s story with Black talent. Join us at, where one can be the difference.

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How micro-pathways are transforming Pima Community College

Quote by Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert

This is the first story in the Lab’s Transformation Profile series spotlighting innovative partners in our Community College Growth Engine Fund. 


Pima Community College (PCC) is located in Tucson, Ariz., and serves Pima County with a population of just over 1 million, the second most populous county in Arizona. The college enrolls over 15,000 learners and is a Minority-serving institution (MSI), with nearly 50% of their learners identified as LatinX. The Education Design Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF) is part of the college’s recovery and reskilling efforts to assist adult learners gain the skills they need to get back to work and to help those disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Pima designed eight micro-pathways through the CCGEF in 2020-21, prompting PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert and Lab Founder + Board Chair Kathleen deLaski to co-author this November 2021 op-ed in AACC’s Community College Daily: Have we found the gateway to transform community colleges?


What is a micro-pathway?

Co-designed with learners and employers, micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials, including a 21st century skill micro-credential, that are flexibly delivered to be achieved within less than a year and result in a job at or above the local median wage.

Explore all eight of Pima Community College’s micro-pathways in a gallery at the bottom of this post.


The foundation of PCC’s transformation is what Chancellor Lambert calls the “two curves of community colleges.” The premise is that community colleges are transitioning from an industrial curve to a digital curve. The industrial curve is the current status quo defined by structured certificate and degree programs, fall/spring/summer semesters, and where the Carnegie Unit (credit hour) is the driver of learner readiness and educational attainment. All of the processes are built around the credit hour, including faculty time, student financial aid, and accreditation. There has been some transformation at community colleges, but it has been limited by the current system. For example, six- week sessions. This system shows favoritism toward those who can drop everything and go to college and does not address the needs of new majority learners.

The digital economy is the second curve. It is not stable, it is unpredictable, and it offers a lot of opportunity, but it also comes with risks. It is learner-centric. The complex lives of new majority learners don’t revolve around the time-bound structures of the credit hour. As a society, we are in the “transition” stage. Our economy is moving toward the digital economy and skills-based hiring, but we are not there yet.

“We’ve had a decade or more of declining enrollments. Our relevancy is in question. We need to get to know that our first curve model is not going to get it done.”

Chancellor Lee Lambert, Pima Community College


Community colleges will need to adapt to continue to be relevant since the first curve is not going to meet the needs of new majority learners.

Transformation highlights

+ Over 4,000 learners are interested in Pima’s micro-pathways. PCC’s micro-pathways target adult learners and are called PimaFastTrack. The college invested marketing dollars to launch a stand-alone landing page for PimaFastTrack as well as program-focused landing pages in both Spanish and English. The messaging centers on priorities relevant to adult learners: Financial assistance, support, speed, all-inclusive pricing, and simplicity. In addition, PCC outsourced speciality expertise to build an online presence around the value proposition for the eight micro-pathways. This has led over 4,000 learners to complete online interest forms, which exceeds, by far, anything the college has ever seen.

+ Designed for “universal access” to be more inclusive to adult learners. Adult learners may experience barriers with starting their education journey on the credit side of a college. Pima has combated these barriers by offering the micro-pathways as noncredit options. Once learners complete their micro-pathway, they can choose to enroll in a certificate or degree program at that point or at any point in the future. In line with Universal Access, learners also have entry points to the college through dual enrollment (enrollment in high school and the community college simultaneously) or direct enrollment (after graduating high school).

+ Instituted a “universal design” approach to their PimaFastTrack program. The Center for Excellence in Universal Design defines universal design as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people.” For PCC in the context of PimaFastTrack, designing universally means designing with an intentional focus on the needs of adult learners so they can succeed in their goals. PCC delivers micro-pathways through online, in-person, and hybrid formats simultaneously, making them available to learners in the format that works best for the learner.


+ PCC uses Standards of Practice for program development where academic and workforce are aligned using CCGEF’s design criteria. PCC is using the Lab’s micro-pathways design criteria as the foundation for their Standards of Practice for scaling PimaFastTrack across the college. For each of the eight design criteria, they’ve included “design in action” detailing how to address the design criteria, including the steps, tools, and examples from the work they did with the CCGEF. They also lay out the structure and roles for deans, department heads, the workforce team, and contributing team members. The workforce function at the college drives the idea, but the instructional departments carry out the design and development process. The Standards of Practice provide a holistic approach and structure to scale micro-pathways. The inclusion of learner and industry feedback ensures PCC is getting multiple perspectives before finalizing any design. They even include a Design Checklist similar to what the CCGEF design teams used to validate the design criteria prior to launching their micro-pathways.

+ Leadership changes reflect the focus on learners, micro-pathways, and innovation. As shared by Dr. Ian Roark, Vice Chancellor of Workforce Development + Innovation, “We intentionally did a robust pilot vs. a small one for the Community College Growth Engine Fund. It had enough boldness to give us the traction we wanted. We paired that with the vision and expectation starting from the top, which enabled us to deliver and to begin transformation across the college. We framed the decision with our faculty and deans that we have confidence in you – we know you can get this done – and that our learners need this. We have set a tone that we treat learners with dignity and respect, and that we serve all of them in the same way.” This demonstrates the colleges’ commitment to their learners, micro-pathways, and innovation.

Obstacles to overcome

The transformation demonstrated by PCC in only two year’s time is truly remarkable. However, as they will share, there is still work to be done. Two of the biggest obstacles to overcome are around integrating 21st century skills, including badging these micro-credentials, and developing Comprehensive Learner Record (CLR) capabilities. They are still at least six months to one year before these two capabilities will be in place.

“We’ve done things like improve PLA, invest in a registration system for noncredit, which was great, but CCGEF has been a way to bring all of that together and give it a name: Micro-pathways, which we are calling Pima FastTrack. It gave us a cause and a purpose. Working with the Lab provided us with a way to become part of something bigger than Pima – a greater sense of purpose.

Amanda Abens, MC, Dean of Workforce Development and Continuing Education


This article by Valerie Taylor is part of the Lab’s work helping community colleges innovate and transform through the micro-pathways design process. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, download our January 2022 Design Insights Brief, subscribe to our email newsletter for updates, and follow along on Twitter: #Micropathways.

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New service offerings! The Lab teams up with Credential Engine to offer preparation support for Learning and Employment Record pilots

Learning and Employment Records (LERs) – digital records of an individual’s learning and work – have the potential to create more equitable access to employment and education opportunities by equipping individuals with verifiable and shareable data about their skills, achievements, experiences, and credentials. As  states, postsecondary institutions, and employers explore piloting LERs, it is important that pilots are designed with: equitable outcomes for learners as an explicit goal; and that they use linked open data to support interoperability within a skills-based talent ecosystem. 

The Lab and Credential Engine (CE) have teamed up to offer services that will help stakeholders prepare for LER pilots, laying a strong foundation for pilots designed to empower learners in the sharing of  their verifiable credentials and skills as currency towards job opportunities. Together, the Lab and CE bring a blend of human-centered design tools and processes, best practices in data transparency, and technical knowledge that will position emerging LER pilots for success. The partners will work with you so that LER pilots are prepared with a strong use case and value proposition for learners, a plan for incorporating credential and pathways data, and a rich understanding of the human and technological requirements to support an LER workflow.  A description of services for springboarding LER pilots is below. These offerings can be customized and combined with additional services to address specific circumstances and needs.

Download the Full List of Services (PDF)

Learn More About Our Work with Credential Engine

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How to better serve adult learners: 5 ways community colleges align noncredit + credit programs through micro-pathways

The six colleges and systems in the first cohort of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund— CCGEF or the Fund, for short — are piloting their 30+ micro-pathways.

Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

Cohort 1 colleges have focused on adult learners as their primary target audience. Data shows these are the majority of learners that enroll in noncredit courses. They are more likely to be older: The average age of students in noncredit programs is 34 compared to 22 for students in credit programs; more likely to have a GED rather than a high school diploma; and more likely to be students of color*. With that in mind, Cohort 1 intentionally designed their micro-pathways to begin with noncredit programs. This provides adult learners an entry point into postsecondary education and a bridge to higher credentials and degree programs on the credit side. However, this has meant bridging the noncredit-credit divide typical at community colleges.

As stated by Dr. Ian Roark, Vice Chancellor of Workforce Development & Innovation at Pima Community College: “Equity is really at the center of all of this work. Everything we do in higher ed that hierarch-alizes the learner, and even otherizes them, especially when you put “non”-in front of a learner and call them a ‘noncredit’ learner, we have other-ized them. That’s why we have embraced this vision of the new majority learners that EDL has taught us to embrace and bring about in the context of equity.”

Pima and the other Cohort 1 colleges have embraced micro-pathways as a gateway to community college transformation.

Below are five of their accomplishments in aligning noncredit and credit.

1. Noncredit micro-pathways courses + credentials articulate to credit programs.

For CCGEF, Cohort 1 colleges put the onus on themselves to align competencies and assessments to ensure credentials and courses completed in noncredit programs are credit-worthy, rather than learners having to prove themselves through additional assessments or other Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) activities. This was accomplished through articulation of mirror or mirrored courses (which are the same courses offered in credit and noncredit), industry certification crosswalks and equivalency agreements.

2. Learners can enter and exit micro-pathways at their own pace.

Cohort 1 noncredit micro-pathways provide an on-ramp to a credit career pathway and the opportunity to earn higher credentials. Learners can move along the career pathway at their own pace, and enter and exit at different points along the pathway as their career goals dictate. For example, many learners can move into employment after completing the micro-pathway, but can choose to return to earn a higher- level credit certificate and/or degree as their personal and professional career goals dictate. These pathways and entry and exit options were communicated to learners in advising, on institution websites, and through infographics.

3. Colleges are developing a culture of ‘a learner is a learner,’ regardless of where the journey begins.

Cohort 1 design teams have worked to overcome the typical division in support services offered to noncredit learners. Two of the colleges have established formal advising programs for learners who start on the noncredit side and others are doing this on a more informal basis through faculty members who oversee both noncredit and credit pathways. One college has set up a co-enrollment process with their local workforce system to ensure learners have access to tuition assistance and wrap-around services — services that would normally only have been offered on the credit side. Colleges are also providing noncredit learners access to work-based learning opportunities and scholarships, with new funds established specifically for CCGEF learners.

4. CCGEF colleges launched a Data Collaborative to better understand learners.

Cohort 1 launched the Data Collaborative with partners Brighthive, the National Student Clearinghouse, Urban Institute, and Credential Engine. Cohort 1 wants to learn more about their noncredit learners, including whether they matriculate into credit-bearing programs or disconnect from the college after completing noncredit courses. The Data Collaborative’s goals are to yield valuable information about learners, credential completion, employment and wage data, among other items.

5. Colleges are scaling their noncredit and credit alignment through micro-pathways design.

For each of the Cohort 1 design teams, micro-pathways have served as a way to innovate around noncredit and credit alignment. Most of the teams have been learning and iterating on a handful of programs but have plans to scale across the college. For example, Prince George’s Community College designed and launched three micro-pathways and added a fourth early in 2022. Pima Community College launched eight micro-pathways and added another, with plans to scale even further during 2022.

What’s next?

The progress Cohort 1 has made is tremendous, yet if you ask any of the design teams, they will say there is still more work to be done. They would like to see more resources to support noncredit advising models and a greater focus on marketing to noncredit learners. The Lab is grateful to have partnered with our six colleges and systems and their dedication to serving new majority learners.

To learn more about Cohort 1 and the Community College Growth Engine Fund, download: Design Insights Brief: Community College Growth Engine Fund Micro-pathways: A Gateway to Community College Transformation.

This article by Valerie Taylor is part of the Lab’s work helping community colleges innovate and transform through the micro-pathways design process. Learn more about the Community College Growth Engine Fund here, subscribe to our email newsletter for updates, and follow along on Twitter: #Micropathways.

* Citation: Xu, D., & Ran, X. (2015). Noncredit education in community college: Student, course enrollments, and academic outcomes. Community College Research Center, 2015. Available: 
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XCredit Phase 1: Explore the skills ecosystem with Andrea

Meet Andrea. She’s 24, single, and has three cats that she adores.

Andrea is currently serving in the Navy and plans to transition into the civilian workforce in the next few months. She wants to get a good job after her six years of service without going back to school for a degree. She would love to work in IT and make her way toward a management role so that she’ll have the financial stability to start a family.

While in the service, Andrea gained a lot of skills, such as leadership, problem solving, and technology skills, and she wants her next employer to see all of the value she can bring to their workplace using those skills.

While Andrea is a fictional persona, she represents the goals and characteristics of the learner-earners – or (l)earners – the Education Design Lab aims to serve.

Over the past 18 months, the XCredit team at the Lab has explored the design question: How might we validate and credential existing skills to make (l)earners more visible in the talent marketplace?

In collaboration with our partners, the Lab spent XCredit’s first year prototyping an interoperable skills ecosystem to help military-connected individuals like Andrea, as well as unemployed and underemployed civilians, move toward the careers they want.

How does it work? Follow along as Andrea validates her skills within the XCredit ecosystem.

Andrea’s journey

Andrea begins in a platform for military-connected individuals to connect their learning and experience to customized career and education opportunities. Within this tool, Andrea is presented with her Learning and Employment (LER) record, a document that tracks her experience, training, and competencies. Near the bottom, she sees her military experience has already been translated into a number of validated 21st century (or soft) skills, including those associated with Critical Thinking, Oral Communication, and Creative Problem Solving.

Along with her validated skills, Andrea sees that she has the option to validate additional 21st century skills by taking a few digital assessments.

When she clicks the “Submit to XCredit” link within her LER, Andrea passes into the Lab’s central “Ecosystem Hub,” where she’s greeted with a banner reading, “Welcome to XCredit!”

Within this Hub, she sees her skills profile, which lists all her validated skills, along with all the relevant assessments she’s able to take.


Looking at which skills she hasn’t yet validated, Andrea decides to begin with the “Listen Actively” assessment, a part of Oral Communication. She navigates to this section and launches the “Listen Actively” assessment, which moves her into an extended reality environment.

As the XR assessment loads, Andrea realizes she has the option to either click her responses with her mouse or speak her responses directly into her computer’s microphone. She loves how this option engages her as a human being, tapping into her empathy and engaging her soft skills.

Ten minutes later, she’s done. Andrea scores well on the assessment, and when she returns to the Lab’s central Hub platform, she sees her skills profile has automatically been updated, the “Listen Actively” skill now validated.

In her skills profile, Andrea sees that she only needs to pass one more Critical Thinking assessment to earn a Critical Thinking micro-credential, so she navigates to the Critical Thinking section of the Hub.



She clicks on the assessment, titled “Question Assumptions,” and this time, a chat-based simulation assessment launches in a new window.


After reading the assessment scenario and what she’ll be measured on, Andrea clicks “Play.” She then chooses an avatar that represents her, and completes the assessment by making choices in the chat-based simulation that follows. When she reaches the end of the assessment, Andrea sees her scores from the assessment pop up and is excited to see that she has validated this final Critical Thinking skill!

After Andrea navigates back to the Hub, she sees a notification that she has been awarded the Critical Thinking badge, so she opens her email. She can’t believe how quickly the micro-credential was awarded — right after completing the final assessment!

In her email is a message with a link to claim her badge, so she clicks the link and is redirected to the badging platform. Here, she claims her micro-credential, which identifies all of her validated skills.

Andrea feels a rush of pride, knowing that she’s being recognized for skills she gained in the service. She assumes this is the end of the process, but a pop-up informs her that there’s one more step she can take.

A digital skills wallet has been created on her behalf, and she’s encouraged to add her new badge to this skills wallet. Unsure of what exactly this is, she adds the badge to her wallet, where she learns that she’s able to pull in other learning and employment records to create a more complete picture of her skills.

Now, prospective employers will see that she’s validated one of the critical skills they’re seeking when hiring new employees.

Andrea is now ready to apply for the jobs she’s targeted, knowing employers will recognize the skills she gained in the service.

XCredit: What’s next?

During Year One, our instructional designers created sub-competency assessments and industry capstones measuring users’ critical thinking, oral communication, and creative problem solving skills. Through user testing, jobseekers and hiring managers alike evaluated the authenticity of the experience and the value users found in the 21st century skills micro-credentials. And after an externally conducted equity and bias review, the team addressed potentially problematic aspects of our assessments, including but not limited to an examination of representation of who held power and how people in simulations, especially people of color, were positioned.

Moving forward with Phase Two, the XCredit team has ambitious goals.

  • We’re expanding the catalog of available 21st century skills credentials from 3 to 9, and the number of assessments from 23 to 110.
  • We’re seeking ACE accreditation for all assessments so that credential earners are also eligible for college credit when validating their skills.
  • We’re layering in additional skill validation methods and opportunities, further leveraging individuals’ lived and working experience in new and innovative ways.
  • We’re conducting two research-focused pilots on our assessments and prototype ecosystem to enable early proof points, iteration, and improvement.
  • And we’re expanding the ecosystem to incorporate further entry points and connections with external hiring systems, to help our users connect their skills to employment.

We, and Andrea, are just getting started.


This article was written by XCredit team members Casey Andree and Dr. Tara Laughlin. Follow our journey at

Want to get involved? Email us at

Special thanks to our Year 1 XCredit partners, whose tools are featured throughout Andrea’s story above.

news and events

How Alamo Colleges are scaling digital skills badges in Texas

UpSkill SA! — a partnership between Alamo Colleges, Goodwill San Antonio and the Education Design Lab — led to the Alamo Colleges District creating more opportunities for students to earn marketable skills badges. The district issued 851 badges in Fall 2021 to students who demonstrated  21st century skills mastery inside their traditional academic courses. 


“By 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have a certificate or degree” – that was the overarching goal of the 2015 Texas Higher Education Strategic Plan known as 60x30TX.

The state’s 2022 plan, Building a Talent Strong Texas, aspires to the same goal, but includes more adult learners: “at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-64 will have a postsecondary credential of value by 2030.”

Luke Dowden, Chief Online Learning Officer/Associate Vice Chancellor for the Alamo Colleges District and its AlamoOnline division, comprised of five community colleges in the San Antonio region, has been on a mission to meet that 60×30 goal sooner rather than later. That path opened up in early 2019 when Dowden and two of his District colleagues, Instructional Designer Amber O’Casey and Online Learning Coordinator Eryn Berger, joined forces with the Education Design Lab (the Lab) and Goodwill San Antonio to launch UpSkill SA! in partnership with Palo Alto College. Their work is focused on the creation of meaningful additions to the district’s catalog of noncredit digital badges and for-credit, stackable, certificate programs that now typically include courses embedded with badges. 

UpSkill SA! offers Goodwill frontline employees (called team members) tuition-paid enrollment in a series of three non-credit online badges in resilience, collaboration, and creative problem solving — called “SkillsBooster” — and a 21-credit Level 1 Certificate in Logistics Management that incorporates the creative problem-solving badge into the first course of the certificate program. As noted on the UpSkill SA! project website, the idea was to “quickly upskill incumbent retail workers to prepare them for careers in Advanced Manufacturing and other growth sectors that can enable their social mobility.”

Dowden explained the entire UpSkill SA! effort was well thought-out with a highly supportive Goodwill staff comprised of professional counselors, a career navigator, and an enrollment coach that worked in concert with Palo Alto College enrollment professionals. “An advising team of faculty and program coordinators were ready to work,” Dowden added. “Goodwill would do the internal marketing and vetting, and then their career navigator would begin working with our enrollment coaches to get them [team members] through the admissions process so they would not get hung up there.”  

See related story: COVID didn’t stop these working moms from earning stackable credentials through Goodwill San Antonio and Alamo Colleges


Alamo Colleges Boost Badges + Certificates

Their efforts thus far have been hugely successful, despite being severely waylaid by the pandemic. For instance, a Goodwill San Antonio Digital Literacy program, which helps potential enrollees garner the foundational digital skills needed for studying online, was developed and implemented through lessons learned during the piloting and launching of UpSkill SA! in 2019. More significantly, UpSkill SA’s development of its SkillsBooster and the Level 1 Certificate programs became the spring board that helped to enable the entire Alamo Colleges District to boost the integration of more marketable skills badges into academic courses. 

“The certificate program, which was really our first attempt at embedding marketable skills badges into academic coursework, has exponentially expanded our work,” Berger said. “Now we have an initiative called Course + Badge [launched in the summer of 2020], where we train our faculty on how to embed digital skills badges into our academic courses, and they are the Education Design Lab badges.”  

Through Course + Badge, faculty undergo a semester-long training that teaches them how to map competencies and embed marketable skills badges into their academic courses, and about 100 faculty have completed the training to date. After successfully completing the training, they become credentialed badge specialists who can offer marketable skills badges in all their courses. 

Encouraging numbers

All this work has led to some impressive results. For example, in late 2019 and early 2020, 54 Goodwill employees earned a total of 72 badges through UpSkill SA’s SkillsBooster digital badges program offered at Palo Alto College. Since then, 1,258 skills badges have been earned by students through the scaling up of digital badge offerings throughout the entire Alamo Colleges District, with 851 digital badges earned during the Fall 2021 semester alone. “We’re getting really positive feedback,” Berger said. “It’s helping us to socialize badges around the district.”

Student testimonials

“We reorganized our team with people dedicated just to the development and support of micro-credentials at the Alamo Colleges,” added Dowden. Working with Goodwill San Antonio through UpSkill SA! “really influenced what we are doing, and we are excited about it. We think you need to be able to have something as evidence that you have skills, and our students are confirming that.”

“I took this course while applying for new jobs,” said a working adult learner who earned a resilience badge during the summer 2021.  “Believe it or not, the exercises forced me to really think about my previous experiences. I had an interview a few days ago and I was so relaxed and confident because of the exercises. The interviewer loved me, and I start my new position on Monday.”

Another learner who completed the Goodwill SkillsBooster program said “the experience brought to light strengths and knowledge that I did not know I possessed. During the exercises I often found myself sharing the reference articles and questions with others. Writing out the responses helped me reflect on how I handle situations. Multiple times I was able to apply what I learned directly to things actively occurring in the workplace.”  

“I was able to go to work every day and help my team members on how they can meet their goals,” said another Goodwill employee who completed the SkillsBooster program. “It felt great.” 


Want to learn more?

Here’s how to contact the Lab.

news and events

COVID didn’t stop these working moms from earning stackable credentials through Goodwill San Antonio and Alamo Colleges 

UpSkill SA! offers Goodwill San Antonio employees tuition-paid enrollment in a series of noncredit online badges, called “SkillsBoosters,” and a stackable, for-credit certificate in Logistics Management provided through Alamo Colleges District’s AlamoONLINE. Goodwill team members Carmen Frias (from left), Maryjo Barrera, and Angela Ashworth are all working mothers who completed the certificate in 2021. Photo courtesy of Goodwill San Antonio.

Many of us think of Goodwill as a great service for donating clothes or household goods we no longer need or want. But behind the stores and drop-off locations, Goodwill is a 120-year-old, international nonprofit social enterprise comprised of 155 community-based, autonomous organizations in 12 countries and 3,200 stores in North America that combined do a lot more than accept and sell donated goods.

In a recent Harvard Business Review Imagining the Future of Work podcast, Goodwill International Industries President and CEO Steve Preston said, “Most people do know us for our stores, but our mission in life is to help people reach their full potential through learning and, ultimately, through employment. We work to tool people with the right kind of supports and services so that, ultimately, they can take care of themselves and move down a successful career path.”  

The mission of providing meaningful career education and advancement assistance is not lost at Goodwill San Antonio, a 77-year-old organization with 1,500+ employees (called “team members”) who serve Texans within a surrounding 24-county territory. Goodwill San Antonio offers many no-cost-to-enroll programs, three of which include: Good Careers Academy provides comprehensive and accredited vocational training. The Good Careers Centers assist job seekers with job readiness and immediate access to employment. Youth Services, through the NXT Level Program and in partnership with the City of San Antonio and Community In Schools of San Antonio, assists young adults, ages 16 to 24, with their career goals. And Digital Literacy provides computer and internet training. 

UpSkill SA! is the most recent addition to their free, career-enhancement programs, developed through an innovative partnership with Alamo Colleges District’s AlamoONLINE at Palo Alto College and Education Design Lab (the Lab). UpSkill SA! offers Goodwill team members tuition-paid enrollment in a series of noncredit online badges, called “SkillsBoosters,” and a 21-credit Level 1 Certificate in Logistics Management provided by AlamoONLINE. Both got off to a strong start in late 2019 and early 2020. During that time, 54 team members in two cohorts earned a total of 72 badges. In addition, 23 learners enrolled in the first two flex semesters of the certificate program, which officially launched during the Fall 2019 and Winter 2020 semesters. 

Then came the pandemic, which brought a temporary cancellation of the program in early 2020. Of the 23 learners enrolled in the certificate program, three currently employed team members continued and earned the certificate in 2021. 

The program has since re-constituted itself and is back on track with more team-member cohorts increasingly coming on board for both the SkillsBoosters badges and the certificate program. As an added benefit, the Goodwill San Antonio Digital Literacy program, which helps potential enrollees learn the foundational digital skills needed for studying online, was developed and implemented through lessons learned during the piloting and launching of UpSkill SA.  

See related story: How Alamo Colleges are scaling digital skills badges in Texas

UpSkill SA! success stories

The three team members who completed the certificate – Angela Ashworth, Maryjo Barrera, and Carmen Frias – are all working mothers who are a testament to the effectiveness of the program.  

Ashworth, 36, is an engaged mother of four children, ages 9 through 15. She’s an eight-year Goodwill employee who currently works full-time at the Randolph Air Force Base location. “The world was in a pandemic, and I was able to hold down a full-time job, four kids, and school,” she said, adding that the certificate program was a fast and convenient “adventure” but also very challenging for someone who had never attended college-level classes, let alone fully online. “I had to make time to study and do all the school work,” Ashworth explains. “I feel I have grown a lot. In the future, I will continue to expand my education because this experience showed me that I can do more things than I gave myself credit for.”

Barrera, 33, is a married mother of eight (four of whom are step children), ages 11 through 25. She, too, works full-time at Randolph Air Force Base and was a newbie to college. “It was difficult for me being out of school for so long. I was reaching out to my professors almost every single day,” she said, adding that the support staff at Palo Alto College “helped me every step of the way.”  Since the certificate is stackable, Barrera has enrolled in the Logistics and Supply Chain Management A.A.S. program and is currently taking general education required courses. She says she got her inspiration to pursue a higher education from her children. “I needed to show them if their mom can go back to school and finish, they have the choice to do it, too.” Her teenage son, for instance, is enrolled in a high school early-college program. “He tells me all the time, ‘Mom, you’re doing it. I’m going to do it.’” 

Frias, 46, is a married mother of five adult-aged children. She’s been working for Goodwill San Antonio for 17 years and is currently the full-time manager of its Gateway store in Live Oak. She attended a four-year college about 20 years ago but had to drop out after having her fifth child while working part-time. “It was just overwhelming,” she said. “I was not able to really commit to it.” With her children now grown into adulthood, she decided to enroll. “When I went to the orientation and found out I could do this at my own pace from home [fully online], I thought it was doable for me, so I signed up,” she added. Frias was inspired to earn the certificate by her daughter, who at the time was in the process of earning her bachelor’s degree. “She was my motivator. She kept telling me I could do this.” Now Frias is encouraging her coworkers to enroll. “I’m just thankful Goodwill provided this program. It has really been an inspiration in my life to be able to do this.”

“It was an uplifting experience to teach Goodwill team members through Palo Alto College’s partnership with UpSkill SA! Seeing individuals coming in and gaining their certificate in logistics to advance their careers is very encouraging, especially now that training in these areas is so vital due to growing demand,” said Ronnie Brannon, lead instructor for the Logistics and Supply Chain Management program at Palo Alto College. “They emerged industry-ready and ready to make a difference in their organization or future organization.”

A program whose time has come

“Goodwill San Antonio deeply believes in growing their team members,” said Don Fraser, the Lab’s Chief Program Officer, who spent time on the ground with some of the San Antonio stores and its central office. “You can see pictures of team members everywhere. They are able to transform peoples’ lives, and they celebrate that all the time,” he explained, adding that many of the support services provided by Goodwill — such as life-skills coaching, career navigation, and giving enrollees paid study time during their full-time shifts — “is a key difference.” The end result is that team members feel like they belong there and are valued. Last year, Goodwill San Antonio held a celebratory breakfast for the three graduates.  

“We are doing amazing things here in San Antonio for our team members, providing them with an opportunity to upskill themselves – at no cost – so their lives get better, their family lives get better,” said Jessica Greenway, Goodwill San Antonio’s Director of Training and Development. “They are achieving amazing results both personally and for the business of Goodwill.”   


Want to learn more?

Here’s how to contact the Lab.