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How Pima Community College is Using Universal Design + Access To Create Micro-pathways for the Success of Adult Learners

Pima Community College (PCC) joined the first cohort of the Community College Growth Engine Fund Growth Engine Fund—CCGEF or the Fund, for short—to design micro-pathways as a way to better access to and outcomes for adult learners in their region. 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. In designing these micro-pathways, Pima is digging into the methods and values of universal access and design to better reach and serve adult learners on the margins.


What does universal access look like for Pima?

The Global Campaign for Education first defined universal access in their 2010 publication Universal Access to Learning Improved All Countries as “people’s equal ability to participate in an education system.” For Pima, designing for universal access means recreating post-secondary education with a focus on new majority learners, and more specifically, adult learners. 

Adult learners, or people entering higher ed at age 25 or older, may experience barriers with starting their education journey on the credit side of a college. Depending on the learner’s needs, they could face big barriers like the process to enroll or navigating how to complete FAFSA (less known by its full name, Free Application for Federal Student Aid). And, these pose even larger issues for learners seeking to enroll in Pima to upskill quickly as a means to a higher paying job. Pima is combating these barriers to entry by offering the micro-pathways they develop as non credit options and the siloed nature of credit vs. noncredit.

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. Their completed courses articulate to credit and will be waiting for them ”in escrow.” The noncredit-to-credit articulation has been fairly straightforward for Pima since they already have equivalent courses and credentials on the credit side through their high school dual enrollment programs, certificate programs, and degrees. 

Learners can also enter the college through dual enrollment (enrollment in high school and the community college simultaneously), direct enrollment (after graduating high school), or in noncredit—any learning seeking to enroll can choose what works best for them. 


What does universal design look like for Pima?

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 Pima, universal design is both a process and an outcome. In the context of college programming, designing universally means designing with an intentional focus on the needs of adult learners so that they can succeed in their goals. And, we know that when we design for those on the margins, we actually create models that benefit the vast majority of learners.


Three Key Universal Design Components of Pima’s Micro-pathways:

1. Competency-based: Pima’s micro-pathways integrate industry-recognized certifications for in-demand occupations identified by local employers. These certifications are issued by industry associations, such as the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council and the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. They are based on competency frameworks and use an exam or performance-based assessment to ensure learners have mastered the competencies. In addition, Pima is piloting the Lab’s 21st Century Skills Micro-credentials, which are also competency-based, as a 21st century skills component in their micro-pathways.

2. Multi-modal: All eight of Pima’s micro-pathways are available in online, in-person, and hybrid modalities, as appropriate to the field. Learners can choose the one that best works for them. Pima has designed all three versions of their micro-pathways simultaneously to economize the processes.

3. Stackable: Pima’s micro-pathways stack into existing higher-level credit certificates and associate degrees in the same or similar career path. Learners receive articulated credits from their completed micro-pathways towards these credentials.


“We will have credit and noncredit-seeking learners together. Our shift at Pima around universal access and universal design is not about the learner. What difference does it make where a learner takes a course–in the credit or noncredit realm? Same with the design–regardless if it’s online, in-person or hybrid–it’s about competencies. Every learner is a learner that has value and worth and we are here to serve them in the manner that is best for them.” states Ian Roark, Vice President of Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships. 

Designing micro-pathways for true universal access and design has been a challenging shift. Pima has needed to adapt their enterprise system, curriculum development procedures, and enrollment and management operations to make universal access and design as a process and a outcome, well, accessible. For example, adult learners in noncredit programs need different wrap-around supports from credit learners. Pima has appointed Corporate and Community Navigators who will focus on supporting learners enrolled in Pima’s eight micro-pathways. Despite the challenges and the need to pivot from how they have done things in the past, Pima is confident these new learning and credentialing models grounded in universal design and access will grow in scale and importance. They are hopeful their new programming can serve as a case study for changing state and federal policy.

“We know and believe this approach [universal access and universal design] has great value to employers, increases wages for workers, and lowers social costs. We will have data to support instituting the approach with things like funding for short-term Pell.” says Roark.


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.

Learn more about the Lab’s Community College Growth Engine Fund here, and follow the work on Twitter #CCGEF.

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