Impact Stories
April 7, 2021 – Education

Create micro-pathways that stack to degrees (and lead to good jobs)

The new majority of learners don’t need a costly degree. They need a well-designed, affordable micro-pathway that leads to a high-growth job.

Create micro-pathways that stack to degrees (and lead to good jobs)
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Create micro-pathways that stack to degrees (and lead to good jobs)

This Viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, “Building a brighter future: Big ideas for postsecondary education.” In this series, we ask innovators what could make a difference to learners in 2021 and beyond.       

Kevin Stump is director of impact, evaluation, and thought leadership at Education Design Lab.  

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Going back to college, which has been a safe harbor in previous recessions, is no longer feasible for many Americans because of rising costs, tenuous savings for middle- and lower-income learners, and the relevance and length of many degree offerings. Waiting two-to-six years for a costly degree that may or may not get you a job is not an option for most Americans.

In response, the Education Design Lab launched the Community College Growth Engine Fund. We hope to catalyze investment in community colleges so they can create 18 employer-validated sub-degrees that make skills visible and stackable. We call these “micro-pathways,” and they are designed to connect low-wage and entry-level workers to in-demand jobs that pay at-or-above median wage. This is what the majority of America’s learners need.

Certificates and non-degree programs were the fastest growing learning offerings at community colleges over the last year. Whether called nano-degrees, micro-credentials, or any other term in the myriad, these are all attempts to break down degrees into targeted units of learning that name the skills employers are asking for in job postings and that are critical for success on the job.

We’ve found that quality micro-pathways have certain traits in common. They must be data-informed. They have to be employer-driven and validated, and move at the speed of the market. The courses need to have a flexible delivery format, and be easily combined to work toward a degree. And they have to be affordable and easy for learners to find online among a sea of options.

This will require extensive work to design, iterate, and test. And it requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders: K-12 school districts, colleges and universities, employers, workforce development agencies, government, intermediaries, and most importantly, learners themselves.

It’s a tall order. But we think this is the way forward. The new majority of learners don’t need a costly degree. They need a well-designed, affordable micro-pathway that leads to a high-growth job.

The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for education.