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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. 

Background

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.

Pima Community College's Micro-pathways

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