Schools are leveraging microcredentials to help learners achieve goals, reskill, and upskill for workforce success.

How two institutions tackle microcredentials

Schools are leveraging their microcredential programs to help learners achieve goals, reskill, and upskill for workforce success

The global workforce is changing, constantly evolving to demand new skills and competencies from its current and future workers. More and more higher-ed institutions are creating microcredential programs to outfit learners of all ages and backgrounds with validated and evidence-based proof of learning and skills.

Microcredentials have applications in myriad areas–for remote learning, in efforts to upskill and reskill employees, for adult learners returning to higher education, and more.

Microcredentials are bite-sized educational courses with a more specific focus. They could take months or weeks to complete. Because of their convenience, microcredentials appeal to employees looking for a highly personalized, flexible, and cost-effective way to further their education.

Here’s how two institutions are leveraging their microcredential programs to help students with different goals, personal responsibilities, and professional obligations further their education.

University of Maine System

The University of Maine System’s (UMS) microcredentials comprise stacked digital badges, which offer evidence of learning and highlight the skills employers are seeking. Microcredential pathways at UMS lead learners through different levels to demonstrate learning and skill mastery.

Level 1 badges offer topic introductions and foundational work. Level 2 badges provide rigorous training with competency assessment, aligned standards, and skills practice. Level 3 focuses on application and feedback through work-based learning, internships, apprenticeships, experiential learning, and competency assessment. When learners earn all three badge levels, they’ve earned a UMS Microcredential.

The program focuses on workforce development–how to skill and reskill and bring more adults into higher education.

One thing UMS has made sure to avoid is issuing participation badges. “We wanted these to be rigorous, so an employer can look at it and know a candidate has had some rigorous training,” said Claire Sullivan, PhD, assistant vice chancellor for Innovation in Digital Badges and Microcredentials with UMS.

Sullivan said one thing the university system has made sure to avoid is issuing participation badges. “We wanted these to be rigorous, so an employer can look at it and know a candidate has had some rigorous training.”

The microcredential program has had the biggest impact on adult learners and underserved learners,” Sullivan said. “We have adult learners with some college and no degree–we’d like to get them more comfortable with higher education again, bring them back in incremental ways. Getting them comfortable with small amounts of learning and stacking those into something they can apply to earning certificates or degrees.”

Adult learners are key, and so is engaging younger students and opening their eyes to potential careers.

“I do think we can do much more for our adult and underserved learners. I also see a big pipeline into higher education for youth. Not only just to get them interested and more aspirational, [but] to think about the things they’re interested in for careers, to understand what the potentials are for different careers. Lots of young people don’t know what they CAN do.”

For other institutions seeking to develop similar programs, Sullivan emphasizes understanding their “why.”

“Why are you setting out to do this? A new revenue stream? To educate the citizens of your state or beyond? What are your goals for it?”

Developing relationships with a variety of stakeholders will be essential in actually implementing a microcredential program, and working with people who are excited about the idea will help move the initiative forward, she added.

Starting with pilots is smart, she said, because microcredential programs are always evolving. “Start with pilots, see what works well, and always adapt,” Sullivan said. “Have some kind of feedback mechanism where you can continue to change and adapt as needed. There will always be new skills needed in today’s world. Skillsets are exponentially growing, and others are falling to the wayside. Knowing your top priority areas for skill-building is another key.”

Pima Community College

At Pima Community College, creating better outcomes for adult learners is a top priority. PCC was already focusing heavily on workforce development and skills-based hiring before the pandemic, in recognition that higher-ed outcomes are disproportionately misaligned to the needs of the workforce, said Ian Roark, vice president of Workforce Development and Strategic Partnerships at PCC.

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.”

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Laura Ascione

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