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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.

National Convening Recap

Thanks to all who attended our #Micropathways National Convening on Jan. 19, 2022!

+ Watch the recording on YouTube
+ View the presentation slides (PDF)
+ Download our Design Insights Brief
+ Explore all 30+ micro-pathways
+ Learn more at the Community College Growth Engine Fund website
+ Join the conversation on Twitter with #Micropathways

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