A New Model: How Community Colleges Are Centering Learners and Their Skills

As we look back at how the pandemic has shifted higher education, the message moving forward is that the learning and upskilling experience must evolve to better meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. Within a new learn-to-work era, there are three clear signals that require attention:

  • Learner attitudes and needs are evolving, emphasizing faster, flexible, affordable, and stackable experiences that improve their economic mobility.
  • Employer needs and behaviors have changed, emphasizing skills and competencies over who you know or where you went to school.
  • Institutions have not kept pace with a skills-based economy and are looking for more opportunities to redesign programming as new competitors change the landscape.

In May 2022, an ECMC Group multi-year study found that more than half of teens in the U.S. are open to something other than four-year colleges to meet their higher education needs.1 Nearly half believe they can achieve success with education attained in three years or less. Between the strong labor market and the rising cost of college, young people are choosing shorter, more affordable career-connected pathways. Adults are making similar decisions about higher education. A recent Strada survey found that two in five working-age learner-earners in the U.S. had completed a non-degree credential and believed it had helped them to achieve their goals.2

A New Model to Meet Changing Belief Systems

Over the past decade, Education Design Lab (the Lab) has been a leader in helping colleges and universities use human-centered design to create more equitable models from the learner perspective. The Lab worked with educational partners to better understand those accessing higher education and reframed the term “nontraditional students” to “new majority learners” based on enrollment numbers and population trends. It also became clear that college was never designed for the success of these new majority learners, and was often designed to keep them out, specifically those who are Black, Indigenous, or Latinx; working class; or living in poverty.

As we launched the Community College Growth Engine Fund in 2020, it was important to focus the program on those individuals who have been underserved and underrepresented in postsecondary education. The fund’s partner institutions took on the challenge to create micro-pathways that are affordable, flexible, relevant, visible, and portable. The goal is to support access to valued, high-quality credentials in a high-demand field leading to a job that earns individuals the local median wage or higher in less than a year.

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 can start (l)earners on the path to an associate degree.”
– Education Design Lab

Over the last two years, the fund’s partner colleges have created nearly 50 micro-pathways in information technology, healthcare, manufacturing, and related industries with local and national employers. There are nearly 150 industry credentials within these micro-pathways, along with an emphasis on 21st century skills such as critical thinking, creative problem-solving, communication, and intercultural fluency. Micro-pathway learners have earned over 4,000 credentials so far.

The colleges designing micro-pathways are discovering that this work is in fact a gateway to further transformation efforts that address learner and employer needs. For example, Pima Community College (PCC) in Tucson, Arizona, designed seven micro-pathways as part of the fund’s first cohort of colleges. Now PCC is taking further steps, such as adding multiple ways for learners to access courses, blending credit and noncredit learners, and supporting ongoing innovation through a revised institutional structure. It is the start of a new model.

“I believe our [current] model is on an unsustainable path,” said PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert. “We’ve had a decade or more of declining enrollments. Our relevancy is in question. . . . If something is unsustainable in the long run, it will end. And the corollary is if something is going to be a big deal in the future, it’s got to start sometime.”

The time is now, and the need is clear for community colleges to adopt new practices, structures, and policies to better serve new majority learners and a skills-based economy. Community colleges represent the best opportunity to drive economic mobility and economic development in communities across the country.

1 ECMC Group. (2022, May). Question The Quo: Gen Z Teens Want Shorter, More Affordable, Career-Connected Education Pathways.
2 Wimmer Schwarb, A. (2022, February 1). How Credentials Can Create Opportunity for More People. Strada Education Network.


Lisa Larson, Ed.D.
Head, Community College Growth Engine Fund
Education Design Lab


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