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How to market micro-pathways: 5 insights to help community colleges reach adult learners

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 in pilots for their 30+ micro-pathways with adult learners as their key target audience.

Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (including at least one 21st century skill) which are validated by employers and lead unemployed, displaced, and low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.

Marketing this new class of credentials has not been business as usual for the colleges’ marketing and communications departments.

“Our colleges and systems are utilizing a variety of marketing strategies. With micro-pathways being so new, we may not see the promise of some of these right away,” said Dr. Lisa Larson, head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. “As a human-centered design organization, we realized that one of the best ways to determine optimal marketing strategies is to ask learners.”

To do that, the Lab hosted three, 45-minute virtual marketing feedback sessions open to learners who were completing coursework in their micro-pathways. There was geographic, occupational, gender, and racial diversity across learners engaged in the sessions.

Below are five marketing insights gleaned from learners in our feedback sessions.

1. Adult learners respond to a variety of marketing strategies.

“I found out about my micro-pathway on Facebook. It was a simple post and very straightforward application that was linked to the post. It was quick and easy.”

“The first time I saw the poster about the micro-pathway, what grabbed my attention as a mom is that I can participate after I pick up my kids and everything. That program is going to be after that. And being virtual is important, too.”

The learners we spoke to found out about their micro-pathways in a variety of ways. Some learners discovered their micro-pathways through digital means, such as keyword searches, Facebook, the college website, or through email outreach from the colleges. Others mentioned physical assets, such as seeing flyers and/or posters nearby or on campus. Some found out through word-of-mouth from their employers or other professional contacts. From what we heard from learners, it is important to cast the net wide when marketing micro-pathways to appeal to different preferences.

2. Showcase learner testimonials and success stories on your micro-pathways website.

“Add success stories, links from YouTube, where people tell about how their program went, what you can expect, the pros and cons, and what types of employers they received feedback from.”

Learners stated that testimonials and/or videos from micro-pathway completers should be included on micro-pathway websites. They shared that it is important to them to hear stories from others that completed these programs to understand how the programs impacted them and the jobs they were able to secure as a result of completing the micro-pathway. This is something to consider as colleges begin to have micro-pathway completers.

3. Partner with employers to promote upskilling to their employees.

“Have a (college) representative come in while we are at work. That is the top way to reach adult working learners.”

With micro-pathways designed to help individuals in low-wage occupations move into median wage or higher positions, upskillers are a key target audience. Upskilling may be with a learner’s current employer. One example is Seattle Colleges’ Health IT micro-pathway, designed with employer partner Seattle Children’s Hospital. The hospital included information in their company newsletter including their offer of paid scholarships. On the other hand, we spoke to other learners who shared that marketing by their employers did not exist and that it has a lot of untapped potential. The learners had great ideas for colleges to help local employers get the word out to their employees, such as creating posters that can be posted in hallways and/or break rooms, providing brochures or flyers to distribute, and having a college representative come talk about the micro-pathway(s) with employees during work hours.

4. Most important messages for adult learners: Affordability, flexibility, and an accelerated timeline (a year or less).

“The timeline – you can finish in a year and get your dream job – some people might think about going back to school even if it’s been a long time. You’re just meeting once a week, I can do that. Micro-pathways kind of say that, but they might now know what a micro-pathway is.”

From the learners, we heard messaging about the very nature of micro-pathways and the design criteria are paramount.

Design criteria are the principles or aspirations that the pathways should meet. They should serve as parameters or guardrails for our designed solution in order to meet the needs of the learners and other stakeholders. The micro-pathway design criteria focused on those three areas include:

  • Can be completed in one year or less
  • Offered in a flexible delivery format
  • Affordable cost
5. Advisors are the critical link between the website and enrollment.

“The website is fluid and has all the information I was looking for. I was able to contact people from the website.”

We heard from learners that they appreciated the ability to reach someone at the college directly through the colleges’ micro-pathways website and have their questions answered. Advisors from the college also played an important role in learner decisions to enroll and start classes. It was clear from the learners who met with advisors that these individuals had a major impact on their decision to take classes and work toward earning the credentials in the micro-pathway. The advisors carefully listened to the learners and helped them select pathways that were in demand locally and aligned to the learners’ interests.

The Lab and our partner colleges are still learning how to best market micro-pathways. As with anything new and innovative, it’s going to take some trial and error. However, we are grateful for the insights provided by our micro-pathway learners and believe this will help to shorten the learning curve.


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.

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