When the pandemic hit and caused widespread job losses, many adults returned to school looking to reskill or upskill as they sought to become more competitive in their current field or new fields.
“Increasingly, we’re serving a working adult versus a direct-from-high-school enrollee,” Roark said.
In Pima, in particular, death rates are outpacing birth rates each year, and high schools’ graduating classes are smaller each year.
“Our labor market and our model can’t be dependent on that direct-from-high-school model,” Roark said. “We predict a major dropoff in 2026, and [expect to remain] stagnant at that rate for about a decade. We knew we had to shift.”
PCC’s Fast Career Credentials program met the needs of learners in its community by offering micropathways–two or more stackable credentials (including 21st century skills) validated by employers that lead unemployed, displaced, and underpaid or low-wage workers to median-wage occupations and on a path to a degree.
PCC also focused on its Prior Learning Assessment, which offers credit for work and life experience and can be used for up to 75 percent of the credits required for a degree or certificate.
Every skill gained through a micropathway is transferrable to a Prior Learning Certificate, and every Fast Career Credentials learner has access to a special student services team that will work with learners to navigate the college system and the overall community system.
Then, in 2020, PCC joined Arizona’s community colleges and numerous businesses and government organizations in the Reskilling and Recovery Network, a 20-state collaboration to help Americans who lost their jobs due to the pandemic and to help local economies recover to their pre-COVID levels.
“What are the things we can do to help people jumpstart their careers? That’s how we approached reskilling and recovery,” Roark said. “What can we do as colleges to expedite that? That’s where the convergence occurred–the development of micro-pathways would allow people to fulfill their college and career training dreams.”
The Reskilling and Recovery Network prioritizes helping women and communities of color, and seeks solutions to close the equity gaps that have been worsened by the pandemic. Experts from the participating organizations strategize, share tools, and collaborate on technical assistance for virtual activities. Strategies include engaging employers to partner with community colleges to train and hire new employees.
These two efforts set the stage for PCC to become part of the first cohort of the Community College Growth Engine Fund (CCGEF) to design micropathways to improve access to learning and overall outcomes for adult learners. In designing these micropathways, PCC is digging into the methods and values of universal access and design to better reach and serve adult learners on the margins.
Because PCC’s micropathways are non-credit, learners seeking to return to school aren’t up against many of the hurdles accompanying enrollment in credit-based courses. Once learners complete their micropathway, they can enroll in a certificate or degree program right away, or at any time in the future–their completed courses lead to credit and will be waiting for them.
Support from administration and institutional leadership is essential for a micropathway program to succeed, Roark said. So is committment to making a new–but important–program part of an institution’s mainstream offerings.
“You have to be committed,” Roark added. “Too many innovations in higher education are one-offs and small-scale–they do great things, but if it’s not part of the ‘main menu,’ it’s always going to [remain] something small.”