Austin Community College (ACC) is one of the six community colleges and systems that is part of the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund—CCGEF or the Fund, for short—to build and scale what we call “micro-pathways.” Micro-pathways are two or more stackable credentials (21st century skills included) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and underpaid or low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree. A key area of innovation for Austin is starting their new micro-pathways in the college’s noncredit Continuing Education (CE) division and seamlessly supporting learners to transition to credit bearing credentials where the CE coursework will articulate for credit.
As shared by the Fund’s design lead for Austin and Associate Vice Chancellor, Workforce Education, Gretchen Riehl, Ph.D., “The CE division is an on-ramp. We want to make it a seamless on-ramp, like on a freeway. We are using CE as a means to get learners up to speed for credit classes and on the same level as credit learners. We have a catch phrase at ACC, start here, get there, that encapsulates that philosophy. “
Though starting the micro-pathways in the noncredit CE division creates fewer barriers for the adult learners that Austin Community College hopes to serve, it does present funding challenges since these learners will not qualify for Pell Grants and may not be able to self-pay. We’ve seen a similar tension in our work for community colleges: Colleges move through a design process to create more equitable and accessible programming, but the traditional funding mechanisms in place to support students in reaching their goals fall drastically short.
The Texas Public Education Grant covers noncredit tuition and fees, for example, but there is a funding limit, which the college typically reaches for CE learners. There’s also local workforce system funding available, but only certain individuals qualify. However, through a series of synchronicities, Austin Community College was able to launch a new CE Scholarship Fund. It started with a donation from a local citizen who was familiar with the college’s CE department, followed by a gift from the deLaski Family Foundation for micro-scholarships. Right now Austin’s CE Scholarship Fund has $50,000 in micro-scholarships earmarked specifically for micro-pathway learners, and another $58,000 available for other “Fast Track” CE learners.
The CE Scholarship Fund will be used to help learners pay tuition and fees (such as exam fees), which Austin is hoping frees up funding for other needs like better quality transportation or child care—two of the biggest barriers their CE learners typically struggle with while taking classes. The money from the Scholarship Fund will support learners who are not able to access grant funding from other sources.
Austin Community College is housing their CE Scholarship Fund within the college’s foundation. They are promoting the availability of this funding on their micro-pathway website pages and through advisors guiding learners in Austin’s micro-pathways. Learners will follow similar processes as for credit, need-based scholarships. Given this money within the CE Scholarship Fund will be used quickly, Dr. Riehl is coordinating with Austin’s Foundation staff to set up a state employees charitable campaign where college employees and others can donate to the CE Scholarship Fund as a one time donation or in monthly contributions.
What are the steps to starting a CE (or other noncredit) scholarship fund? It’s easier than you think!
Step 1: Appoint a champion for the scholarship fund.
In order for a scholarship fund like this to meet its potential, it needs someone to take ownership, recommends Dr. Riehl. Dr. Riehl is currently serving as the champion for Austin Community College’s CE Scholarship Fund.
Step 2: Meet with the college’s foundation to set up the noncredit scholarship fund.
Given the foundation has processes for credit-based scholarships, setting it up should be fairly straightforward. We imagine most college’s will need to follow a process similar to that of Austin Community College. The big difference is that this funding should be earmarked for noncredit learners only, and potentially for specific programs, such as the college’s micro-pathways.
Step 3: Connect funders to the foundation.
This can be friends, family, or the community. When potential donors learn more about the goals of micro-pathways and the learners something like micro-pathways might support in reaching their goals, donors may want to contribute. Austin’s CE Scholarship Fund was started by a single donation of $40,000 from a community member (P.S. It was actually a friend of Dr. Riehl’s!).
Step 4: Build awareness of the scholarship fund internally and externally.
Let internal college departments and external partners, such as local workforce centers and partner community-based organizations, know about the scholarship fund. Ensure that the processes learners will need to follow to access the funding is made widely available through different channels and communicated clearly.
Step 5: Build awareness of the scholarship fund among learners.
Information should be posted on the same website pages as the college’s micro-pathway information. Offer clear steps, link to an application, and provide a phone number and email address in case learners have questions. Create flyer PDFs for partners to distribute with a phone number of someone who can help them through the process.
Establishing a CE Scholarship Fund has been exciting for Austin Community College, especially for employees in the CE department division that work directly with the learners this Scholarship Fund will support.
Dr. Riehl offers words of wisdom for community colleges that are thinking about setting up a noncredit scholarship fund: “It seems like such a simple thing. We all know we don’t have money for CE [noncredit programs]. Be open to trying something new that you haven’t done before. Just because you haven’t done it doesn’t mean it won’t work. And it doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. Sometimes you don’t know what works until you try.”
This article is written by Valerie Taylor as part of a new mini publication series, Innovation Snapshots: Ideas in Action. This series dives into the many innovative ideas and models that we have co-designed with 135+ colleges and learning institutions to better center and support new majority learners in reaching their goals. Spotlighting our partners across different Lab-driven initiatives, each part of this series focuses on a process or framework and the resulting work of a different partner. Find the rest of the series here.