The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Pima Community College in Arizona has a host of new short-term certificate programs to help students become desirable job candidates in less than a year’s time. But the students can’t nab the certificates with the trade skills alone. To complete the “micro pathway,” they must also master a series of  “21st century skills” like empathy, creative problem solving, resilience and critical thinking.

These requirements are part of a new framework designed to make sure students have not just the technical skills but also the relationship skills to succeed in jobs that require interaction with customers and co-workers. Created by a nonprofit called the Community College Growth Engine Fund, the framework is being used at six community colleges now, and four new members making up a second cohort were announced this week.

The one-year certificate programs offered at these colleges include two or more credentials for specific careers in the fields of allied health, hospitality and business, information technology, advanced manufacturing and supply chain and construction. The programs target jobs that earn at least a median wage and the courses are designed with local employers, to make sure students will have the required or preferred skills when they start applying for these jobs. They also include on-the-job learning such as internships.

“We need to make sure that we’re making it accessible and affordable for everybody to get the training and education they need to get into great careers, great jobs, family sustaining wages, for them to stay in their communities and build their communities.”

Lisa Larson, head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund

Lisa Larson, head of the Community College Growth Engine Fund, said the programs are also designed to be easy to access for busy, working adults, be affordable, and to get students some credit they could put toward a degree in a relevant field.

In its first year, the Fund has helped develop more than 30 non-degree programs with six community college systems: Pima Community College, Ivy Tech Community College, Seattle Colleges, City University of New York, Austin Community College and Prince George’s Community College.

The second cohort using the framework to develop programs catered to working adults includes the Colorado Community College System, Maricopa (Arizona) Community Colleges, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and the Community Colleges of Philadelphia. 

Related: Business partnerships with community colleges funnel workers to better jobs

The programs are run by the Education Design Lab, a nonprofit organization focused on closing equity gaps in higher education and improving economic mobility for students who are often considered nontraditional. It’s funded by various philanthropic organizations.

Tuition for the short-term programs is not paid for by the Fund; instead, the Fund encourages public funds, scholarships and grants be used.

Larson said that while employers want to hire for the technical skills workers demonstrate, they also need people who are strong communicators, are empathetic toward others and can think critically and collaboratively. These social and emotional skills have historically been hard to measure, but are important aspects of career success, so they need to be prioritized, Larson said.

These skills are built into the various programs in different ways. At the Borough of Manhattan Community College, for example, a new Emergency Medical Technician program requires students to master and earn microcredentials in empathy, critical thinking and creative problem solving. In this program, those aren’t standalone courses but are embedded in the technical skills courses.

“So, these just become critical signals to employers that they’ve taken the time to say ‘These are important to me. I understand what they mean in this career, in this job, and I know that they align to the skills that I’m also learning in this micro pathway,’ ” Larson said. And if they master the skills, she said, “that’s value added – you’re already a better health care provider.” 

Generally, the growth engine fund programs are designed so students can earn both a certificate that can help them get a job fast and credit they can put toward a degree program at a college. 

At Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, part of the challenge has been breaking down the barriers between the credit- and non-credit-granting sides of the institution.

Related: A handful of colleges are finally providing training in a way consumers want it: fast

Stacy Townsley, Ivy Tech’s vice president of adult strategy and statewide partnerships, said the new commercial driver’s license micropathway program, which earns students eight credits toward a degree in supply chain management, is the first to merge the credit- and non-credit-granting sides of the college.

Townsley said that working with the growth engine fund has helped bring to life ideas administrators and staff had on the horizon, including stronger connections with local employers.

It’s motivating to students to know that industry leaders are invested, she said. 

“They’re not there to just serve as ‘thumbs up, thumbs down,’ ” she said. “We’re really looking to them as design partners. That’s kind of the shift that we’re having to take and that our employer partners and our community partners are having to take. This has to be done together, and it takes time.”

Pima Community College’s vice president of workforce development and strategic partnerships, Ian Roark, said staff and administrators are learning as they go, too. 

For example, to make the programs as accessible as possible to working adults, Pima used the open lab concept for many of the programs. Open labs allow students to go in and do their lab work at virtually any time that works for them. It’s great in theory, Roark said, but sometimes students fall behind. Pima is still trying to strike the right balance between an open lab model and a cohort model, which would have students working together on a coordinated schedule, he said. 

Supporting working adult students can be challenging, especially when many have pressures outside of school and work, including family responsibilities. Pima has added extra resources for the students in these programs, including what the college calls corporate and community navigators, who can help students address their workforce needs, or needs they have in their personal life, like child care, or food or housing insecurity.

Related: A surprise for Americans switching careers: They need to go back to school

Roark said a preliminary look at the enrollment data shows that they are reaching people who had never thought about enrolling before, erasing fears that the new programs might take away from other certificate or degree programs.

In an effort to cater to adults with work and family responsibilities, the Growth Engine Fund requires that the programs offer flexibility, including online, in-person and hybrid options, and that they can be completed by full-time or part-time students in one calendar year or less. 

They also emphasize affordability, and call for public funds, scholarships and grants to be used to pay tuition whenever possible.

“They’re not there to just serve as ‘thumbs up, thumbs down.’ We’re really looking to them as design partners.”

Stacy Townsley, Ivy Tech’s vice president of adult strategy and statewide partnerships

Larson said whether a program is credit-bearing or not should not determine whether it gets funded. 

“We need to make sure that we’re making it accessible and affordable for everybody to get the training and education they need to get into great careers, great jobs, family sustaining wages, for them to stay in their communities and build their communities,” Larson said. 

This story about social emotional learning in higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published.