New Mexico Highlands Uses Federal Relief Funds to Start Microcredential Program for Post-Traditional Students
March 29, 2021

The passage of the new COVID-19 relief bill ensures that colleges and universities will soon have access to nearly $40 billion as costs continue to mount from the pandemic. As institutions await their allocations, many have been working to develop critical programs using grants from the previous two relief bills—the CARES Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act—to support their students and communities.

New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) received a grant from the CARES Act Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund in November to help students and institutions make the transition to online learning that began one year ago and promises to continue in the post-pandemic world.

With this funding, NMHU established the Northern New Mexico IHE and Community Partner Consortium to combine resources to create the greatest impact on the Tribal, Pueblo, and Hispanic rural communities in northern New Mexico. Currently, the consortium is comprised of 10 other members: Santa Fe Community College, Luna Community College, Northern New Mexico College, San Juan College, Diné College, Northeastern Regional Education Cooperative #4, Northern Area Local Workforce Development Board, Navajo Technical University, HelpNM, and Zuni Pueblo Public Schools.

NMHU, established in 1893 when New Mexico was a territory, centered its initial mission on providing education to those moving West. Today, the university is an open-admission comprehensive and Hispanic-serving institution with an almost 10 percent Native American student population. Given its rural setting, administrators hope that additional microcredentials from this program can both support workforce development and academic degree attainment from the NMHU School of Education.

“One of the challenges we face being up in northern New Mexico is not only our rural setting but the significant digital divide from the lack of adequate broadband access,” explained Roxanne M. Gonzales, NMHU provost and vice president for academic affairs. “At the same time, we are lacking economic opportunities for folks. When we started talking about what people need, we then started thinking about the help teachers need in online classrooms and how we could create a whole new career field of paraprofessionals with a specialization to aid teachers, because the need exists from pre-kindergarten through graduate school.”

This microcredential program, Technology Learning Support Specialists (TLSS), will serve 2,500 students per year for a total of 5,000 students over two years. The first course will be available this month, and the remaining three courses will open in May. This staggered approach allows the consortium to monitoring progress in the initial course before finalizing all four courses.

“We really came at it from a service perspective, but out of that core value, we've really had a bigger discussion and said, we're not going to be impactful unless we work collectively in our communities, especially in rural communities,” said Mary Earick, dean of NMHU’s School of Education. “We really view this as the beginning of a micro-credential library that can have a dual-purpose supporting workforce development, but also having onramps for individuals who may want to turn that into academic degree attainment.”

While the consortium is based in northern New Mexico, the program is available to anyone in the state. Given the concerns over broadband access, the program’s platform was designed with smartphones in mind. Students can take the entire course on a phone if needed, and each module lasts for an hour to allow for more flexibility for individuals who are working or providing childcare.

The program also offers free bootcamp modules with coaching to support distance learning professional development to families, caregivers, and teachers. Bootcamps offer three distinct equity-based onramps tailored to the various professional outcomes students are seeking.

“One of the things that we really put a lot of thought into both with our memberships in the consortium and internally here at Highlands was what will be the onramps,” Earick explained. “We knew we had to have differentiated onramps to be successful. If there is one outcome, you're always going to leave someone behind. Between the coaches who are constantly in contact with the individuals who are coming into the system, to the Northern New Mexico Workforce Board, which is constantly in contact with the individuals coming into the system, to the school superintendents and school districts who are waiting for these folks to be microcredentialed, we make sure students are not left out of the equation. We really have built what we feel is a reasonable and organic pipeline.”

As the consortium continues to learn from its students and communities, NMHU hopes that this microcredential will lead to a viable stackable credentials program in the School of Education to add additional options beyond traditional degrees like a bachelor’s or master’s program. Both Gonzales and Earick are committed to serving the needs of New Mexico and helping provide sustainable educational opportunities.

“We're trying to boost education up for the state,” Gonzales said. “We have a high gap of teacher need, like a lot of states do, but we have a very high gap here. Albuquerque school districts bring people in from the Philippines, for example, to become teachers. So not only do we want to do this, to help those who are helping the students and create a new credential, but we're also hoping this will create a whole new pipeline of folks who will go into education and become teachers here in the state.”​