How Micro-credentials Can Support Social Mobility in Rural Communities

July 5, 2022

In a rapidly changing economy, micro-credentialing has emerged as a time-saving and cost-effective method to help learners gain recognition for their skills.

Micro-credentials are digital certifications that verify an individual’s competence with a skill or set of skills. They can be earned asynchronously and stacked together to demonstrate readiness for in-demand jobs.

Today, postsecondary providers are working to revitalize regions that have been deeply affected by recession, geographic isolation, limited industry, and systemic racism. The pandemic has intensified the need to leverage digital tools to promote regional economic growth.

Digital Promise’s new research explores the impact of earning micro-credentials on the social mobility of rural learners, prioritizing those impacted by poverty, particularly Black, Latina/o, and Indigenous populations.

In partnership with four innovative initiatives that are using micro-credentials, we conducted case studies to examine career pathways for rural learners. We identified five key themes for successful micro-credentialing initiatives: partnerships, employer recognition, program sustainability, program appeal, and potential for learning/higher education attainment. While most programs are in pilot phases, preliminary research indicates that micro-credentials can—and in some cases, do—lead to job promotions, higher wages, and an increase in self-confidence for rural learners.

Learn more about each community:

The Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative (KVEC) provides free, competency-based flexible, professional learning opportunities for rural K-12 educators via micro-credentials. In the heart of rural Appalachia, teachers may be required to travel 3-6 hours to reach in-person professional development opportunities. Extensive travel times require school districts to coordinate substitute teachers, necessitating unavoidable costs and logistics. KVEC serves the predominantly white, southeastern Appalachian region, including a school district with one of the nation's lowest average incomes per capita. Micro-credentials have proven to be an option for competency-based professional development, allowing educators to complete modules remotely to earn continuing education credits. Read the complete case study.

The Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) serves thousands of learners, reaching residents statewide, including those enrolled in adult education programs. Savannah Technical College, a unit of the TCSG, was awarded a 4-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to address demands for a technically-skilled workforce. They aim to support adult learners by helping them earn micro-credentials to demonstrate skills, transition quickly from unemployment to employment, and progress in careers, such as IT, technology, and manufacturing. Funding is being used to develop a digital badging and pathway system that will interface with the K-12 digital badging and pathways system. The initiative has also received a significant grant to provide skills to returning citizens, in partnership with the Georgia Department of Corrections. Read the complete case study.

Tennessee State University (TSU), one of the oldest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the nation, has a history of significantly contributing to the educational journeys of generations of Black populations across the south. An increasing population of Latino/a residents has contributed to the cultural and social context of the region. Amid the rural region’s factory and agricultural jobs, education is among the most common career paths, including the expanding field of Early Childhood Education (ECE). To increase the preparedness and compensation of ECE teachers, The Center of Excellence for Learning Sciences at TSU coordinated with Tennessee Early Childhood Training Alliance (TECTA) and its early head start programs to launch ClearPath ECE to promote college and career pathways through micro-credentialing. Digital Promise partnered with TSU to document the piloting of their initiative, which was impacted by the persistent challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the complete case study.

The University of Maine System’s All Learning Counts–ME initiative aims to connect Maine’s most rural communities to gainful employment opportunities in growing fields of IT, technology, and healthcare via micro-credentials. A coalition of public and private organizations, including the Maine Department of Adult Education, have made it their mission to develop micro-credentials to provide skills and credentials for learners, prioritizing low wages earning, New Mainers (including immigrant and refugee populations), Indigenous groups, and returning citizens. A lack of reliable internet access and long commutes prevent many residents from accessing online resources and engaging in learning opportunities (e.g., efforts to provide English language skills alongside technical training). Read the complete case study.

Further research is needed to understand the impact of micro-credentials on long-term social mobility for rural learners, in particular poverty-impacted Black, Latina/o, and Indigenous populations. Such effects may be observed by focusing on efforts across the rural south, looking at the initiatives of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Service Institutions (HSIs), as well as Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).

Funding for this project was generously provided by Ascendium Education Group.

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Brian Tinsley, Ph.D. is the Senior Researcher and Communications Associate on the Adult Learning team at Digital Promise. He is a developmental psychologist committed to the pursuit of educational equity across the life course. He has a particular interest in the impact of social and educational contexts on the socioeconomic plight of marginalized populations. Brian currently conducts research on the implementation and use of micro-credentialing programs in rural communities, as well as the development of digital Learning and Employment Records (LERs).

Sarah Cacicio, M.Ed. is the Director of Adult Learning at Digital Promise. She leads and promotes equity-centered projects that are informed by, inclusive of, and relevant to adult learners. Sarah works to understand the role of digital tools and technology in promoting social mobility, and collaborates closely with our research team to frame this work in the science of adult learning. Sarah is recognized for her commitment to driving collective impact through relationship-building and partner collaboration.

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