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Alternative Pathways in Action

Key Takeaways from Learner Experiences in edX's MicroBachelors® Programs

May 23, 2024

At A Glance

The piece introduces the edX MicroBachelors® program content series and highlights that learners in the program are highly career motivated, enjoy the flexibility of online asynchronous learning, and still require more focused career support to take the next step after completing their learning. 

Max Milder Director 
Lisa Eichel Director
Sarah Abra Beu Senior Analyst
Cassandra Garita Director
Practices & Centers Topics

Today’s job market has a critical mismatch—nearly 70% of jobs require a four-year degree, but only 37% of U.S. workers have one. Employers are searching for ways to increase their talent pools and fill roles, and learners are eager for robust educational pathways that lead to employable, future-ready skills outside of the traditional degree system. A growing and untested credential market, however, makes it hard for both learners and employers to identify quality programs that lead to skills development and employability.  

Our North Star at Jobs for the Future (JFF)—that in 10 years, 75 million people facing systemic barriers to advancement will work in quality jobs—focuses on people without four-year degrees as one of the key populations that experiences barriers to advancement. Together with our partners at the  Charles Koch Foundation and edX, we’ve launched the edX MicroBachelors® Program Pathway Initiative to provide learners without four-year degrees access to flexible, affordable pathways to job-ready skills.  

The free program was announced in July 2023 and includes nearly 1000 learners without a bachelor’s degree. These learners accessed one of the five MicroBachelors® program options to gain transferable college credit and interview with employer partners for roles that don’t require a four-year degree.  

In early 2024, we interviewed five learners to learn what motivated them to enroll, discover how this program aligns with their career goals, and gain insights from their learning experience. We found that these individuals brought a strong focus on changing or advancing their careers while gaining confidence in their own ability to pursue further education and training. 

What is a MicroBachelors® program?

MicroBachelors® programs are rigorous, self-paced, and career-oriented offerings from leading global organizations and universities in partnership with edX. This initiative offered five programs: 

  • Statistics Fundamentals from The London School of Economics 
  • Mathematics and Statistics Fundamentals from The London School of Economics 
  • Marketing Essentials from Doane University 
  • Business and Professional Communication for Success from Doane University 
  • Full Stack Application Development from IBM

Why do learners enroll in an edX MicroBachelors® program? 

New Skills for Digital Transformation 

The looming specter of AI-driven job displacement was a significant motivator for some learners to enroll in the edX MicroBachelors® Program. As industries pivot toward automation and digital skills proficiency, the need for upskilling is not just advantageous—it’s imperative. “A lot of things will be automated so that many . . . jobs will probably no longer be necessary,” shared one learner who currently works in accounting. 

While the threat of AI-driven job displacement is real, interviewed learners also cited potential opportunities. As a result, many highlighted digital skills like full-stack development and quantitative competencies like statistics as key areas for their career development that could better position them for future jobs.  

Help to Overcome the Lack of a Bachelor’s Degree

For some learners, the absence of a bachelor’s degree has been a barrier to career advancement, acting as an invisible ceiling inhibiting their professional growth. “After my last contract, it’s been really difficult to find work . . . I’m fighting against people that are younger and have . . . bachelor’s and master’s [degrees] in business,” one participant conveyed. Despite decades of experience in tech-related roles and successful startups on his resume, this learner felt limited by his lack of degree. For many learners, the edX MicroBachelors® Program offers a bridge across this chasm, providing not just the job-relevant skills but the transferable credit to jumpstart their path to degree completion if they choose. 

Job Stability, Advancement, and Fulfillment

The learners interviewed came from a variety of industries and backgrounds, but their goals converged on a common theme: securing quality jobs that promise not just better pay but long-term stability and opportunities for advancement. More than one learner cited periods of unemployment that lasted years, creating cycles of debt and uncertainty. Others cited feeling stuck in entry-level roles or service jobs, with limited opportunities to develop new skills or advance within a chosen career path. The MicroBachelors® program not only helps them move toward their career goals quickly, as most programs can be completed in 6-9 months, but it also provides a more accessible way to try their hand at different types of roles and skills, and helps to find what drives them.  

After my last contract, it's been really difficult to find work . . . I'm fighting against people that are younger and have . . . bachelor’s and master’s [degrees] in business.

edX MicroBachelors® Program Participant

What did learners experience in the MicroBachelors® programs? 

Increasing Learner Confidence for Future Careers

Beyond the discrete skills or progress to a degree, several learners cited that the experience had helped them develop greater confidence to learn and pursue further education. One said, “This definitely does reinvigorate that passion for learning where I am. I miss being in school and being a student.” Learners discussed their past challenges with pursuing higher education, including financial barriers that forced them to leave school and struggles with academics that led them to jump straight into the workforce.  

Many are now using the MicroBachelors® program as an opportunity to dip their toes into online learning and chart their path to potentially completing their degree. “It’s just been great, honestly… It’s helped not only in the sense of creating a new future path for myself, but it really has also just helped my confidence in my current role,” said one learner. 

Flexibility That Fits Real Life

One of the most valued aspects of the edX MicroBachelors® Program is its flexibility. Learners lead busy lives, juggling personal commitments, various jobs, and side hustles. The program’s design accommodates this juggling act and has been a critical factor in their enrollment and experience to date. One learner contrasted her MicroBachelors® experience with previous attempts to complete courses at a local community college, where the course schedules conflicted with her job, and missed due dates often led her to drop a course. Having things online and not at a certain time completely eliminates that and makes it easier for people who have jobs and other commitments,” she said 

A Blend of Skills and Credit for the Future

The edX MicroBachelors® Program distinguishes itself by equipping learners with in-demand skills and also providing them with transferable academic credit that could be applied to a bachelor’s degree. This blend ensures that learners are not only ready to meet the current demands of the job market but are also on a pathway toward completing their bachelor’s degrees if they choose. Learners appreciated the dual benefit of this program, citing that it eliminated the need for them to choose between prioritizing short-term career development or longer-term potential growth through degree attainment.  

A Need for More Embedded and Relevant Career Support

Every learner we spoke with highlighted a career-specific motivation for enrolling, ranging from preparing for the risk of automation to breaking through barriers that seem to cap progression for non-degree-holding professionals. Some were focused on balancing learning with work and life before diving into serious consideration of future jobs. Others desired more support in identifying and pursuing career opportunities. Learners said that hosted job boards didn’t have postings relevant to their program, and they were largely unaware of other available supports like workshops and interview days with prospective employers. Regardless of the quality of the learning experience, providers should ensure that ROI-focused learners have access to high-quality career support tools to ensure learning can be leveraged for quantifiable career outcomes. After all, current research suggests that corporate messaging about removing degree requirements for jobs has not necessarily translated into hiring more workers without degrees.  

It's just been great, honestly . . . It's helped not only in the sense of creating a new future path for myself, but it really has also just helped my confidence in my current role.

edX MicroBachelors® Program Participant

Looking Ahead 

The stories of these learners in the edX MicroBachelors® Pathway Program are as diverse as they are inspiring. They remind us that education is not just about acquiring knowledge but about unlocking doors to new possibilities. As we navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age, programs like the edX MicroBachelors® can serve as instruments in equipping individuals with the tools they need to excel.  

Over the next year, we’ll follow program participants to learn more about the challenges and opportunities of these types of credentialing programs, and how the MicroBachelors® credential affected career growth and economic advancement. 

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