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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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Education Design Lab’s micro-pathways honored in Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards

Celebrating more than a decade of Innovation by Design, the 2022 honorees include nearly 600 projects, products, and services from Nike, Verizon, Microsoft, and others.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 15, 2022) — The Education Design Lab’s micro-pathways initiative – through the Community College Growth Engine Fund – has won an honorable mention in the Learning category of Fast Company’s Innovation by Design Awards for 2022. 

The Innovation by Design Awards, which can be found in the October 2022 issue of Fast Company, honor the designers and businesses solving the most crucial problems of today and anticipating the pressing issues of tomorrow. The competition, now in its 11th year, features a range of blue-chip companies, emerging startups, and hungry young talents. It is one of the most sought-after design awards in the industry.

The Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF, or the Fund for short) helps community colleges accelerate the economic mobility of new majority learners through micro-pathways.

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.

“We are honored that the Fund’s micro-pathways design work with community colleges is an honorable mention in Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards,” said Lisa Larson, Head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. “The Fund’s community college partners are experiencing extraordinary impact in designing education for the future of work while meeting new majority learner needs in obtaining critical credentials leading to great jobs.”

“A common theme among this year’s Innovation by Design honorees, which range from healthcare interfaces to autonomous driving technology, is permanence,” said Brendan Vaughan, editor-in-chief of Fast Company. “The products that leaped out to our editors and judges went against our quick-fix consumer culture, while also manifesting a more inclusive vision of design.”

Honorees for the 2022 awards were selected in the following categories: Accessible Design; Apps and Games; Automotive; Branding; Circular Design; Data Design; Design Company of the Year; Enterprise; Experience Design; Experimental; Fashion and Beauty; Finance; General Excellence; Graphic Design; Health; Home; Hospitality; Impact; Learning; Marketing; Materials; Packaging; Pandemic Response; Products; Rapid Response; Retail; Social Justice; Spaces and Places; Sports and Recreation; Students; Sustainability; Transportation; Urban Design; User Experience; Wellness; Workplace; Best Design Asia-Pacific; Best Design Europe, Middle East, and Africa; Best Design Latin America; Best Design North America; Years in Business (On the Rise: 0–4 Years, Established Excellence: 5–19 Years, Enduring Impact: 20+ Years); and Size of Business (Small Business: Fewer Than 100 Employees, Midsize Business: 100–999 Employees, Large Business: 1,000+ Employees).

The judges include renowned designers from a variety of disciplines, business leaders from some of the most innovative companies in the world, and Fast Company’s own writers and editors. Entries are judged on the key ingredients of innovation: functionality, originality, beauty, sustainability, user insight, cultural impact, and business impact.

Winners, finalists, and honorable mentions are featured online and in the October issue of Fast Company magazine, on newsstands Sept. 27, 2022.

To see the complete list, go to

About Education Design Lab
The Education Design Lab (the Lab) is a national nonprofit helping colleges and employers design more equitable career pathways. 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.

About Fast Company
Fast Company is the only media brand fully dedicated to the vital intersection of business, innovation, and design, engaging the most influential leaders, companies, and thinkers on the future of business. Headquartered in New York City, Fast Company is published by Mansueto Ventures LLC, along with our sister publication Inc., and can be found online at

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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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Video: BRIDGES Rural Summer Convening at Finger Lakes Community College

Our BRIDGES Rural team has had a busy 2022, visiting our partner community colleges across the country.

That tour culminated in a final Summer Convening on July 19-20, when members of our college design teams gathered in Geneva, New York, to talk about their pilot projects and next steps forward (including the Rural Education Community of Practice, which is open to all).

We are so grateful to all of our college partners; our funder, Ascendium; and especially our friends at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC), who hosted the Convening.

While we were in the Finger Lakes region, we shopped at Wegmans (best grocery store ever?)  … and sipped rosé and riesling made by student winemakers at FLCC’s Viticulture and Wine Center.

We also captured a few highlights from our scenic visit … which featured a boat ride on Seneca Lake!

Watch the video:


To learn more about our multi-year BRIDGES Rural project, start with our project page.

Details about the college pilot projects are explained in BRIDGES Rural Design Insights Part 2: Designing + Piloting a New Approach to Economic Agility in Rural Communities.

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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.

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Skills Visibility: The next frontier of the Learner Revolution

A (l)earner mom works on her laptop while her two children play at home in the background
A Letter from Kathleen deLaski, Founder and CEO, Education Design Lab

It’s been eight years since we introduced the construct of the Learner Revolution with the Lab’s first white paper.

We predicted technology and changing learner attitudes would force the unlocking of degrees to empower all learners to disintermediate their education, choosing their learning pathways on their own terms. By 2019, our second Learner Revolution white paper named the beginning of the shift from degrees to skills as a more equitable, inclusive currency for being hired and promoted and suggested how colleges could transform to serve learners in this new paradigm.

Now it’s 2022, and the Learner Revolution has joined forces with the Skills Revolution.

Who would have predicted then a global pandemic? Or the national racial reckoning after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others? Both sets of events accelerated the pace of interest toward more inclusive, skills-based learning and hiring models. They coincide with the readiness of a set of national standards and technology capabilities that still need “human trials” before being ready for prime time. If you haven’t heard about “learner wallets” yet, several major pilots are coming online by the end of 2022. If we can get those trials right over the next few years using the equity vision of many players, we could begin to close the wage and skills gaps that plague this country.

Do we understand this opportunity? Do we see the potential? Are we mitigating the risks?

This paper — Skills Visibility: Why and How a Skills-Based Economy can be More Equitable — attempts to organize that thinking as more than the sum of the interesting parts that are emerging. We attempt to organize it into a new talent ecosystem vision made possible by the skills-based learner revolution. And to urge that we act now to consider the promise and the risks as these tools, standards, and practices begin touching humans. And to design accordingly before it is too late.

Think about it. We move away from a world where a $200,000 history degree gets me a job interview because blue-chip companies only come to the best campuses to interview candidates. We are now tantalizingly close to a world where my skills are telegraphed digitally to any employer around the nation, or even the world, looking for that skills cocktail. And it works the other way: all employers looking for certain skills can feed into a real-time skills ticker tape, signaling to learners and the learning providers that serve them what combination of skills will yield employment.

The magic of this vision, coming to a job market near you in the next two to five years, is “visibility.”

You may not see it happening, but several sectors are leaning in. Technologists are creating the data infrastructure and “digital wallets.” Machine learning companies are scaling skills translation and assessments. Learning institutions are ramping up micro-credentialing strategies with competency-based stacks and one-off badges, attempting to translate their degrees and learning outcomes to a language that speaks to employers. Employers are open to looking at talent differently; in fact, they have to, with the labor shortages and 10-year outlook for new entrants to the workforce. And perhaps most importantly, to enable all of this, learner views about degrees are changing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these changes with millions of people leaving lower-wage jobs and positions that do not align with their career goals or economic needs. The call for more skills training and programs that closely align to employer needs is being heard at local, regional, and national levels. Without a shift to skills, politicians see the economic growth drag that is predicted to slow the economy down by $1.3 trillion by 2030.

Before we turn to the paper, let us honor the degree and its important signal value for a learner’s confidence and (for now) required entry to regulated fields such as medicine, teaching, and law. Nothing we have said should be construed as disrespecting the degree. We simply recognize that expecting it as the gateway to professional success has been an exclusionary practice for so many, and we need alternatives.

These alternatives must be driven by the needs and goals of learners most harmed by the existing system, and not just by their needs and goals, but by these learners themselves. People are incredibly resilient, and many of the learners we’ve worked with over the last eight years have solved for their problems despite operating within a system setting them up to fail. It is on us as systems leaders and decision-makers to change the system itself, and to capture this turning point, this moment, so that all people have what they need to succeed on their own terms.

This paper addresses what that will take at the ecosystem level. And, it calls us all to action.

Download: Skills Visibility: Why and How a Skills-Based Economy can be More Equitable

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The Lab’s top 3 hot takes from SXSW EDU 2022

Pictured from left: Don Fraser Jr., Leah Moschella, Miriam Swords Kalk

Education Design Lab team members are excited to return to in-person conferences, and SXSW EDU 2022 has been the biggest so far. Three Labbies each shared their most impactful takeaway from the March conference in Austin, Texas.


1. We’re not going back to normal

Leah Moschella, Senior Education Designer: Like many others, it had been two years since my last large-scale, in-person conference, and attending SXSW EDU in early March did not disappoint. The energy of the event was palpable as colleagues and partners from around the nation exchanged real-time connections, hugs, and laughter. Attendees crowded vendor tables, and speakers were flooded with thought-provoking questions and insights. As I boarded the plane home, I couldn’t help but think, it’s almost as if things are getting back to normal.

However, the message of the speakers, sessions, and vendors was clear: Education and workforce leaders cannot go back to normal. Instead, now is the time to innovate and reinvent to build more effective, transformative partnerships across education, workforce, and the community.

Dr. Miguel Cardona, U.S. Secretary of Education, affirmed the call to reinvent in an inspiring morning keynote: “We’re closer to a reset in education than ever before. We’ve already been disrupted, so why are we building it back the way it was when it didn’t work for everybody?” Cardona spoke to how shifts in access to remote learning could support opportunities to embed work-based learning models into the school day. Leading global employers such as Deloitte spoke to the growing interest and efficacy of digital mentoring opportunities. During the global pandemic, we saw education and workforce systems reimagined overnight, and now is the time to consider how these innovations can continue to benefit learners as they navigate their earn-and-learn pathways.

2. Practices + policies must shift to enable equity- and learner-centered futures

Miriam Swords Kalk, Senior Education Designer: “This is the moment to make sure that all students have purpose, self-determination, and connection to communities. This is our moment to transform and do right by our learners.” This quote from Dr. Amy Loyd of the U.S. Department of Education brings together so many of the messages that spoke loudest to me during SXSW EDU.

People from far-reaching corners of this giant education world spoke to the need (always, but especially now) to shift the focus of education systems from controlling and regulating students to supporting them along paths toward their individual goals – and how this shift is necessary for us to make headway toward more equitable futures in education and the workforce. Dr. Monique Umphrey of Austin Community College discussed bringing learners in as co-creators of their learning experiences rather than just consumers of higher ed, saying, “We don’t need to be patriarchal with learners. We’re here to help them self-actualize.”

Acknowledging the responsibility that learning providers have to design environments that respond to learners’ needs – both tangible and psychological – resonates strongly with the approach to human-centered design that we utilize at the Lab, especially with our engagement framework. As Dr. Gregory Fowler of University of Maryland Global Campus said, “We need to make our colleges student-ready rather than our students college-ready.”

Dr. Leon Prieto of Clayton State University and Dr. Chanelle Wilson of Bryn Mawr College spoke about how decolonizing curricula – and education systems more broadly – inherently entails shifting from top-down, command-and-control environments to deeply supportive learner-centered models that encourage learners’ self-determination. So much of what they discussed – from making assessment more participatory, future-focused, and formative rather than judgmental and unidirectional, to co-designing learning experiences in partnership with students – underscored how supporting each learners’ sense of growth, belonging, and agency is a critical component of making education more equity-centered.

Practice shifts by learning providers must play a critical role in pivoting higher ed’s focus to sit squarely with learners who have been underinvested in, but we can’t stop there. Policy changes at the state and federal levels need to become more human-centered, seeing education throughout people’s entire lives as a public good rather than a private service. Amari Fennoy of NAACP, Chelsea Miller of Freedom March NYC, and Jemere Calhoun and Mary-Pat Hector of Rise spoke powerfully about the impact of student loan debt on Black learners and their families – how absolute student loan forgiveness and truly free college could have a major impact on narrowing racial wealth and pay gaps and stimulating our economy. Rewinding to the beginning of our lives, Cody Summerville from Texas Association for the Education of Young Children highlighted how early childhood education must also become a strong area of financial investment by federal and state governments in order to equitably support young learners’ brain development, parents’ flexibility to work, and early childhood educators’ access to family-sustaining wages.

3. Shorter, cheaper, BETTER

Don Fraser, Jr., Chief Program Officer: Those three words played over and over in my head as I left sessions. They played in my head when I finished talking shop with old and new friends, even after hours. Shorter. Cheaper. Better. Yes. Yes. And well, sort of. Maybe? It depends. Are we tackling better? The consensus at SXSW EDU was no, but the call for better was an enthusiastic and resounding, we must!

Whenever the economy has had a very specific need, our education system has historically stepped up to meet it — to create certificates or degree pathways that positioned learners to satisfy employers and fill emerging job roles. Given the pace of change and technological advances, however, it has become harder for higher education to respond quickly to market demands and be the learning provider of choice. This created a marketplace for other learning providers to fill in skills gaps that meet the needs of the workforce. The value proposition for these learning providers has been that the investment is tailored to the market (in ways bulkier certs and degrees aren’t) and SHORTER than what a two- or four-year college offers. And in comparison to the rising costs of a higher education, these programs are sometimes CHEAPER. Learners of all types voted with their feet, trying these shorter, cheaper options … but with mixed results.

Much to my delight, the acceptance and growth of micro-credentials, competency-based learning, and credit for prior learning have enabled higher education to get back in the game, to be more responsive, to stand up programs that meet the needs of a rapidly evolving, skills-based economy. To offer shorter and cheaper.

Community colleges have led the sector, but four-year colleges are churning, putting learners at the center to create responsive programs. It’s a call to action all of higher ed must embrace. I was particularly inspired by the session, “Future-Proofing Higher Ed: Serving New Demographics,” with Kate Smith, President of Rio Salado College; Gregory Fowler, President of University of Maryland Global Campus; and Justin Lonon, Chancellor-elect of Dallas College. Three leaders talked passionately about how centering learners leads to more responsive programming, and for most learners, they need shorter and cheaper.

But how are we addressing the quality of the new programs we’re rapidly standing up? No matter where they’re offered, we must design and build better programs. In our parlance, better means the program is (a) well-aligned to market needs, (b) provides increased entry and exit points, (c) leads to jobs with family-sustaining wages, (d) allows the learner to be nimbler in the workforce, (e) provides greater visibility into the skills needed to grow in the field, and (f) is offered in a flexible format.

That sounds like a lot because it is. But that’s what better has to be. That’s what better can be.

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” is fine if you’re Meatloaf, RIP, but learning providers cannot settle for SHORTER and CHEAPER. Our programs must be BETTER.

news and events

BRIDGES Rural, Part 2: New report features 5 pilots, 5 design insights + 5 questions for your rural college

Rural community college students learn manufacturing and industrial engineering

A rural revival is happening across America.

That’s because rural communities have so much to offer, from a renewed focus on access to affordable, reliable broadband; to an increase in remote job opportunities; and, last but not least, access to gorgeous landscapes and scenery that cannot be paralleled. Despite their assets, there is a great deal of investment and attention still needed to help rural communities realize their full potential, and we believe community colleges have a role to play.

That’s why the Lab launched BRIDGES Rural, an initiative supported by Ascendium Education Group aimed at strengthening the capacity of rural community colleges to serve as critical economic growth engines for their learners and communities.

As we enter the final phase of the human-centered design process – the Launch phase – the Lab releases BRIDGES Rural Design Insights Part 2: Designing + Piloting a New Approach to Economic Agility in Rural Communities.


In this brief, you’ll find:

+ 5 pilots from rural community colleges in Idaho, New York, Maine and Ohio.

+ 5 design insights that address access, flexibility, relevance and affordability.

+ 5 critical questions to help your institution better meet learner and community needs.


Download the brief:

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.

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

news and events

College and employer interest grows as micro-pathways come to life

Education Design Lab's Community College Growth Engine Fund National Convening: Micropathways A Gateway to Community College Transformation
Highlights from the Community College Growth Engine Fund National Convening on Jan. 19, 2022.  

Have you ever had a moment in your work or your career when you felt like the pieces were finally fitting together?

Learners (and employers) have been drawing the outlines of a new model of college for us at the Education Design Lab, through 1000+ interviews, for eight years. And forward-leaning colleges have been prototyping and testing with us as partners.

But it felt like one unifying idea — “micro-pathways” — finally came into full view on Jan. 19, during our first National Convening for the 24 colleges in the Community College Growth Engine Fund.

Hundreds of guests were in the Zoom audience, some asking how they could learn more about designing micro-pathways and whether this could be applied to four-year colleges. Dr. Shouan Pan, Chancellor of Seattle Colleges, observed that it felt like a “movement.”

We were so proud as the first cohort of 11 colleges unveiled their first 30 micro-pathways, and reporters chronicled the accomplishments in The Hechinger Report, Community College Daily and Work Shift.

This article in Work Shift begins: 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.”  

Dr. Lee Lambert, Chancellor of Pima Community College in Arizona, described it as a way for community colleges to combat declining enrollments and move to the Second Curve of transformation.

Dr. Rufus Glasper, CEO of the League of Innovation in the Community College, called it a long-needed, fresh approach to attract the COVID-19 “lost generation,” as early research from the Urban Institute suggests that 65 percent of the first 1,200 students to enroll in these pathways are learners of color. 

Thirteen new colleges will form a second cohort across the country, including seven urban and rural colleges in Colorado, which will jointly focus at the state’s request on healthcare and energy micro-pathways. Dr. Joe Garcia, Chancellor of the Colorado Community College System, said, “This collaboration keeps us at the forefront of work-based learning innovation and will help us meet the needs of our growing adult learner population.”

Each college is focusing on regional needs where high-demand, good-paying jobs are going unfilled. And in many cases they are new pathways for emerging roles that have never been designed before. 

Melvin Smith of Seattle Children’s Hospital told the Zoom crowd that he could not find healthcare IT administrators to manage EPIC, an electronic health records system used at hospitals around the country. The hospital helped Seattle Colleges design the pathway using the Lab’s “design criteria” ….. and even offered scholarships as the program started up.

Ivy Tech, a statewide community college system in Indiana, has developed pathways including Cloud Technician and Commercial Truck Driver Plus (the plus being management training for logistics supervisor roles) to help the state with its supply chain issues. Dr. Stacy Townsley, Ivy Tech’s Vice President for Adult Strategy and Statewide Partnerships, said: “It’s still a little clunky as we iron things out the details, but it became very apparent that there are great opportunities to make this a much more seamless experience for learners.” 

Jessica Cinelli of Kingsborough College in Brooklyn, New York, described how the T profile engagement tool has helped transform employer relationships and build 21st century skill credentials into each pathway: “It’s hard to describe the spontaneous combustion that happens when a college administrator, faculty and an employer get together.”

Along with 45 employers, nearly 100 learners were involved in the design of the micro-pathways this past year. One of the learners who completed an Austin Community College pathway said: “It really was a great stepping stone.” 

Perhaps the mindset shift the learners helped create among the colleges was best summed up by Dr. Ian Roark, Vice President of Workforce Development & Strategic Partnerships at Pima Community College in Tucson, a Hispanic-serving institution: 

“Equity is really at the center of all of this work. Everything we do in higher ed that ‘hierarchical-izes’ the learner, and in many cases ‘other-izes’ them, especially when you put ‘non’ in front of a learner and call them a ‘non-credit’ learner, it ‘other-izes’ them.” 

Dr. Linda Lujan, Lamar Community College President from Colorado, noted her biggest excitement/worry in joining Cohort 2 is how to create opportunities for small employers and rural students as well as breaking the artificial barrier between credit and non-credit.

The barriers are real. Non-credit learners don’t qualify for federal financial aid, for advising, and for portability of their courses. June Evans, Director of Prince George’s Community College’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, described how it wasn’t easy for faculty to convert learning outcomes from traditional courses to competencies for their micro-pathways in healthcare, IT support and hospitality management, “But we did it for all our micro pathways … and it gave faculty the professional development needed to think about courses as CBE (competency-based education).” 

What’s the next step?

As we said at the beginning, many in the audience asked how to learn more or get involved in this work.

Each of these cohorts is funded by national and regional foundations for a one-year design process managed by the Lab, a second year of implementation, and follow-up evaluation. How can we bring this model of micro-pathways to more colleges, as well as four-year institutions in a more scalable format? We will be running design sessions to test a next version of the Community College Growth Engine Fund. 

If you are a college that is interested in participating, please email And thank you.

news and events

Education Design Lab’s #Micropathways Initiative Celebrates Year 1 with New Report and 2nd Cohort

+ New report: The Lab unveils 30+ micro-pathway models and design insights from the first cohort of the Community College Growth Engine Fund
+ New cohort announced: Four major community college systems join the Fund
+ National Convening: College leaders, employers + funders gather Wednesday, Jan. 19

WASHINGTON, D.C. (JANUARY 18, 2021) — 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 release of its Year 1 insights in a new report, along with the second cohort of colleges participating in the nationally recognized Community College Growth Engine Fund (the Fund) initiative that designs micro-pathways, a new class of credentials.

New report

We’re at a pivotal moment for forging the robust changes needed to better serve new majority learners. As community colleges continue to address inequities amplified by the pandemic, the Lab releases its latest Design Insights Brief, featuring 30+ micro-pathway models co-created through its human-centered design process. Insights include:

  • Learners need practical pathways with a clear return on investment (ROI) as well as flexibility in format and timing.
  • Employers see the micro-pathway co-design process as transformative to deepening their relationships with community colleges.
  • For community colleges, the micro-pathway design process can serve as a gateway to institutional transformation.

Cohort 2 announcement

Building on the momentum of the first cohort, which included Seattle Colleges (WA), Pima Community College (AZ), Ivy Tech Community College (IN), the City University of New York (NY), Prince George’s Community College (MD), and Austin Community College District (TX), the Fund announces four new colleges and systems for Year 2 (and their sector focus areas under consideration):

  • Colorado Community College System (Energy + healthcare)
  • Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona (Advanced manufacturing + IT)
  • Bunker Hill Community College in Boston (Healthcare + IT)
  • The Community College of Philadelphia (Healthcare; STEAM life sciences + technology; and transportation + logistics)

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.”

“We are thrilled to partner with the Education Design Lab and roll out this exciting approach to program design at our colleges,” said Joe Garcia, Chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. “This collaboration keeps us at the forefront of work-based learning innovation and will help us meet the needs of our growing adult learner population.”

Dr. Steven R. Gonzales, Chancellor of Maricopa Community College District: “This generous support and investment from the Community College Growth Engine Fund will enable our East Valley colleges to strengthen community partnerships to support new pathways to employment in high-demand fields.”

Dr. Pam Eddinger, President, Bunker Hill Community College: “With the average community college student around 27, it is a necessity to have career tracks in the workforce for the adult learner.”

Dr. Donald Guy Generals, President, Community College of Philadelphia: “Now, more than ever, it’s important for students to have access to intentional, industry-recognized training that will help them obtain family-sustaining jobs.”

National Convening

College leaders, employers + funders will discuss the transformative micro-pathway initiative during a National Convening on Wednesday, Jan. 19. The virtual event is from noon to 3 p.m. EST. Register:

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.

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. 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, 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. This brief does not reflect the position or opinions of investor partners.

Download the brief:

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