Bridges for Adult Learners: Promising Results, Lingering Questions

by Debra Bragg / Nov 6, 2012

Understanding that a meager 30-35% of students who finish their GED credential ever participate in postsecondary education, and an even smaller proportion, 5 to 10%, enroll in at least one year of postsecondary education, the state of Illinois aggressively pursued foundation funding matched with a commitment of state and federal funding to scale bridge programs in the adult education system. Beginning with Shifting Gears, a Joyce Foundation initiative involving several Midwest states, Illinois’ bridge program results demonstrated modest success that have improved with time. Bridge program completion rose from 42% to 68% according to the most recent research released by OCCRL (Taylor & Bragg, 2012). These results are noteworthy, particularly recognizing the diversity of students enrolled in bridge programs, including diversity of age, race/ethnicity, and adult learner status (Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education, and English as a Second Language). The state’s commitment to bridge programs is being furthered through it’s participation in new initiatives:  Accelerating Opportunity and the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways.

Not withstanding the initial success that bridge programs have shown on student completion, it is also important to recognize what the state of Illinois still does not know. Given the definition of a bridge program is to prepare adults with limited academic or limited English skills to enter and succeed in credit-bearing postsecondary education and training in career-path employment in high-demand, middle- and high-skilled occupations, it is critical to know what happens to students after they finish the bridge. Do bridge programs prepare students for college level programs?  Are students retained in programs of study, and do they secure credentials that secure them employment? To know whether bridge programs are really working, it is important to link student completion of bridge programs to their enrollment in credit-bearing course work, and to do this analysis, data needs to be tapped from multiple systems. By its very nature, student transition from one system to another (i.e., adult education to postsecondary education) requires tracking student progress. By taking this next step with evaluation, we will know if bridge students are continuing their education at the postsecondary level and earning college credentials. Moreover, by linking postsecondary education data to Unemployment Insurance (UI) wage data we can find out whether students enter into and advance in employment. These types  of evaluations can help to determine whether bridge programs make a difference, and they may also help to support pathways for adult students who need to move beyond the GED to postsecondary education and employment. Hopefully, in the future, as initiatives to promote bridge programs are developed, resources will be dedicated to conducting impact evaluation because answers to these outcomes-oriented questions are needed to determine whether bridge programs are a good investment for the state and for the state’s students.

We are curious about what other states are doing. Is your state implementing bridge programs? Are impact evaluations being conducted by your state or by your institution? Are adult students advancing to the college credit level, and are they finding employment related to their training? What lessons can you share about conducting meaningful evaluations on bridge programs for adult learners?