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Creating Pathway Programs in Higher Education 

  • 7 Min Read

Hear from guests of D2L’s Teach & Learn podcast on the rising importance of pathway programs in higher education.


Traditional degree programs are usually seen as linear and predictable: Enroll in the first year, and at the end of the fourth year, walk across the stage, grab your diploma and shake hands. For some students, this approach works. They have a goal in mind and take the steps to achieve it. 

But for other learners, the journey to attaining their educational dreams is dynamic. Whether they start a degree and have a change of heart, earn knowledge through work experience or are looking to upskill, their educational path is being built on the go.  

Not only are there more nontraditional students entering the picture, but recent high school grads are starting to change their tune on the value of traditional postsecondary education. With these learners in mind, institutions need to adapt. Pathway programs are one way to help students achieve their goals, by building programs that fit their needs. Instead of forcing a learner down a certain road, pathway programs allow learners to dictate and better navigate the twists and turns they take to reach their goals. 

In this article, we’ll share perspectives on pathway programs courtesy of guests of D2L’s Teach & Learn podcast.  

What Are Pathway Programs?

Pathway programs are nonlinear ways a student can achieve their educational goals. While these types of programs have often been hidden in the shadows of degree programs, Dr. David Soo, vice president at Jobs for the Future, believes they deserve more credit. 

“A degree is not the only way that one can be educated and get into the workforce or live a meaningful life,” said Soo during an episode of the Teach & Learn podcast. “There are many other ways that you can become educated. For far too long, these other pathway options have been seen as secondary, other than or alternative to.  

“With the proliferation of new options available, it just seems like it’s time to start to reduce that stigma and make it possible for people to choose those other options and feel good about them.” 

To give these pathway programs credit, their providers need to back them up and start seeing them as valuable ways to learn and grow. 

“There’s a lot of work and innovation that needs to happen in both those pathway programs themselves and the quality assurance around them,” said Soo. “A lot of it’s really reducing that stigma and ensuring that parents and caregivers see them as an option for their kids.” 

Why Higher Ed Needs More Pathway Programs

Bill Hughes, president and CEO of Educational Design Lab, took on the topic of why postsecondary education needs more program diversity in an episode of the Teach & Learn podcast

“If you’re trying to solve a problem like we are right now, where the majority of the people in this country don’t have a degree and yet an increasing number of jobs require either a degree or something that smells like it, that’s a big problem,” said Hughes. “Our apparatus for conferring credentials is struggling right now. It’s got a lot of credentials that have too many requirements that also may not even be aligned with what people really care about.” 

In Hughes’ eyes, it’s time to focus on the learner-earners—people who gain their skills through routes other than a degree—and what they’re interested in getting from their education. 

“What do these learners care about, what are they looking for and who are the people that they’re going to end up trying to work with? Postsecondary education is really a facilitator and intermediary as opposed to the one driving the bus, even though I think we have a history in higher ed of thinking we’re driving the bus. I think that’s actually a problem and it’s starting to show.” 

For far too long, these other pathway options have been seen as secondary, other than or alternative to.  

With the proliferation of new options available, it just seems like it’s time to start to reduce that stigma and make it possible for people to choose those other options and feel good about them.

Dr. David Soo, vice president, Jobs for the Future

Examples of Pathway Programs

One way to get a learner into a pathway program is by assessing their current skill set. Hughes used the example of a learner looking to gain a credential and providing evidence that they have the skills to deserve it.  

“A simple way I think about it is ‘We’re going to give you the final first. You pass the final, you pass the class. If you don’t, then we have a way of backing you into it,’” explained Hughes. “In some cases, you really should go through that whole pedagogical journey, but there are people who have gone through journeys in their life which are richer than a 10- or 12-week course. We’ve learned a certain way of packaging things in higher ed, so being able to not just modularize but also deconstruct what we’re doing and why is important.” 

Hughes also brought up the Community College Growth Engine at Educational Design Lab and how it’s being used to build out what they’ve coined as micro-pathways.  

“We’ve raised millions of dollars each year to stipend community colleges to build out what are called micro-pathways. As opposed to being locked into a degree model, micro-pathways can be credit, noncredit, degree or nondegree, but they are always aligned to a job and career,” he said. 

The micro-pathways are a way to align the program not only to employers but to the people who are pursuing those careers.  

“It might be a journey,” described Hughes. “If you’re going into health care, you might start at one level as a clinical technician and move up all the way to being a radiologist. You might start with a noncredit certificate that gets you the job, and two or three years later, you’re doing what we call the weave—weaving learning, working and living together, because that’s what people actually do.” 

Gen Z and Pathway Programs

Different program offerings aren’t just for nontraditional adult learners. According to Jobs for the Future, research shows that new high school grads—Gen Zs—are shaking up the expectations for what they want from their college experience. From shorter programs to education that’s going to propel a meaningful career, pathway programs are appealing to learners across the board.  

“I’ve been doing a fair amount of talking to Gen Z students, and they really want alternative options—other pathways to and through schooling,” said Soo. “We did a nationally representative survey with Gen Z students and found overwhelmingly that they wanted to have other pathways.” 

The report, Degrees of Risk, found that while students found the idea of alternative learning options risky, many of them are still really open to different ways of pursuing their education.    

“We also surveyed large- and medium-sized employers and found that they’re really open to hiring people with different roots,” said Soo. “We’ve seen a lot of groups trying to encourage skills-based hiring and removing degree requirements. There’s a lot of openness there. 

“It seems like this might be the time when we can actually start to change some of these stigmas and the pathways that are available.” 

The Future of Pathway Programs

Lifelong learning isn’t a new concept. Having program and degree options available for all students can help increase institutional enrollments and the interest of anybody pursuing postsecondary education—whether it’s a traditional route or not. 

“We have a generational change now,” said Dr. Marie Cini, provost and chief academic officer at University of the People, during a Teach & Learn podcast episode. “I love the attitude of millennials and Gen Z. They don’t want to be hemmed in. They don’t want to be tied to any one thing for too long. They want freedom. I wonder if our models just aren’t following what people are really interested in in their lives.”  

Institutions need to start thinking outside the box when it comes to marketing their services to those who really need it—no matter the learners’ age or educational background. 

“We have to stop thinking that there’s this period of time between certain ages where you get the knowledge and skills you need and then you’re set to go,” said Cini. “Learning has to be over a longer period where people can come in and out to get what they need, when they need it. We need to be okay with not saying that if you dropped out of college, you’re a failure. Maybe that’s where your educational journey will end, or maybe there’s more that you’re going to do when you get older. So, let’s make it possible.” 

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Table of Contents

  1. What Are Pathway Programs?
  2. Why Higher Ed Needs More Pathway Programs
  3. Examples of Pathway Programs
  4. Gen Z and Pathway Programs
  5. The Future of Pathway Programs