Funding Community Colleges and Embracing Micro-credentials is an Equity Mandate
Even before the pandemic, U.S. colleges were struggling to adapt to the needs of a new majority of learners. More than half of today’s college students are working and studying part-time. They are more likely to be parents themselves than live on a college campus. So, it should come as no surprise that as the economy shut down, traditional, four-year residential colleges have proven woefully under-equipped to help displaced workers build new skills and earn in-demand credentials.
Even community colleges, which are nimbler and often more in tune with the needs of low-income and working students, struggled to keep pace with the needs of students hit hardest by the pandemic. Data now suggest that nearly 30% of Black and Hispanic students didn’t make it to community college this fall.
We’ve seen this movie before. It’s just been sped up. Already endemic college barriers of affordability and flexibility have been compounded by a digital divide, homelessness, illness, hunger, and depression, all thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic.
New college models cannot, of course, solve for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but colleges can ease the burden of making good on the promise of higher education by creating shorter, more relevant, and visible paths to career success.
A year ago, when we were in the tightest labor market in fifty years, the specter of widening economic inequality and rapid shifts in the world of work led higher ed reformers like us to extol the virtues of stackable credentials, or “micro-pathways,” as a cheaper, faster, better alternative or on-ramp to a degree. These alternatives were already better suited to the needs of a majority of today’s learners as well as the demands of a rapidly evolving labor market. Now, these models are gaining traction as an equity mandate.
What’s a micro-pathway? Two or more smaller credentials that add up to a greater credential—something employers will validate with a job. It is faster and more flexible to earn than a degree and is targeted to specific roles that lead to a livable wage.
Even before COVID, we saw evidence that these new alternative learning models were gaining traction. And community colleges were leading the way.
Why? Because certificates and micro-pathways are faster, less expensive, and skills-based, fitting better with learners’ time horizons, schedules, and pocketbooks. They have been designed around the lives and needs of learners and workers. Community colleges, like those in the Community College Growth Engine Fund, offer affordable prices and have established the sort of community trust with both students and employers that is required to make good on the potential of micro-pathways.
Although community colleges have proved themselves innovative, federal policy has not kept up. Federal financial aid does not provide for most non-credit, workforce-relevant programs. And despite a renewed interest in community colleges (where most of these credentials are delivered), it is not clear how receptive the Biden Administration will be to investing in “non-credit” federal student aid.
There are, of course, good reasons for federal reticence. Learners face a complex maze of non-degree credentials, which creates the risk of waste, abuse, and fraud for consumers. We must take care to ensure that faster, cheaper pathways do not replace but instead complement four-year degrees, which remain our greatest levers for upward economic mobility.
But policymakers should be wary of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We should design policies that, like our institutions, reflect and cater to the realities of learners navigating an increasingly complex world. Federal and state agency mandates and accreditation requirements should reflect the fact that a majority of students often lack the time, support, and economic backstop to invest four to six years or more in acquiring proxies for talent. It should value and acknowledge that new majority learners have skills, capabilities, and experiences earned on the job without the paper to show for it.
Research from the nonprofit Opportunity@Work estimates that as many as 30 million workers have the skills to earn 70% more but lack a credential to prove it. Rather than design for a learner who has the luxuries of time and money, we must consider the tragic statistics for new majority learners stepping into the full degree track. Eighty percent of students who start community college plan to continue on to finish a four-year degree; only 19% actually do.
If higher education were organized in smaller chunks, each with a validated credential at the end and the option to take different forks in the road—like stepping stones on the longer guided pathways leading to associate or baccalaureate completion—imagine how agile our workforce could become.
Community colleges around the country are stepping up to do the design work. So are employers. We believe quality micro-pathways should be eligible for financial aid and/or workforce development funding through the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act. But the current federal financial aid funding model stands in the way. It says, “We’ll help you finance your degree, all or nothing.” And “nothing” feels like it’s no longer an option.