Evaluating Career Pathways: Accelerating Opportunity

by Randall Wilson / May 1, 2014

Randall Wilson of Jobs for the Future shared this guest blog based on his presentation at last month’s Scaling Up Pathways to Results conference.

Effective pathways to rewarding credentials and careers have never been more critical, especially for the 93 million Americans with low levels of education and basic skills. By 2018, almost two thirds of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education.1 But a significant segment of the US population faces steep barriers to entering such pathways, let alone completing them. Recent findings from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills  underscore this finding: one in six adults in the US have low literacy skills, and one in three have low numeracy skills, placing the US below the international average.2

Currently, there are few coherent pathways leading from adult education to career-technical programs and credentials. Basic skills, developmental education and CTE programs are fragmented and poorly aligned, with high loss rates and inconsistent support for learners at each point.  Accelerating Opportunity (AO), a multistate initiative managed by Jobs for the Future, is an effort to build a more streamlined and effective path to credentials and family-sustaining employment, by integrating basic skill and career-technical education in selected states and community colleges.

To enable adult education students to advance, AO sites offer pathways beginning in adult education and leading to marketable, stackable, college level certificates; integrated instruction with dual enrollment and team-teaching with basic skills and technical faculty; acceleration strategies, including contextualized learning and hybrid course designs; comprehensive academic and social supports; and partnerships with workforce investment boards and employers. At both the state and college level, grantees also pursue changes in policy to increase financial support and foster credential attainment, and shifts in culture to change beliefs and behaviors about lower-skilled students’ potentials.

Accelerating Opportunity is a high stakes, high touch program with large ambitions for systems change in community colleges and adult education. We need to know if it works, how it works, and what it costs. For this reason, it is also the subject of a rigorous, independent evaluation being conducted by the Urban Institute in partnership with George Washington University and the Aspen Institute. The evaluation rests on three pillars: a qualitative analysis of how the program was designed and implemented; a rigorous quantitative analysis of the program’s impacts on participants; and a cost/benefit analysis of how the program was financed, and whether it can be sustained.  In late May or early June, the evaluators will release the first year implementation report on Accelerating Opportunity.

Accelerating Opportunity’s early implementation reveals  significant progress and challenges. A key area of progress is achievement of scale. The four initial states (Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois, and Louisiana) have developed over 150 integrated pathways serving more than 5,000 students – over a third of them earning 12 or more credits. Pathways are operating most prominently in manufacturing and health care, but also in automotive, business, information technology, early childhood education, and construction. Three additional states (Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia) have subsequently entered the program.

To support these pathways, AO sites are initiating valuable partnerships – locally, with community-based organizations and workforce boards, and statewide, between adult education, employment, human service, and other agencies. Equally important to colleges is fostering partnerships between adult education and career and technical education departments. Such ties help initiate cultural shifts – overcoming negative perceptions of adult education students, while enabling the latter to see themselves as college students capable of attaining credentials and careers.  On the policy front, states are weaving together federal and state funding sources (TANF, Perkins, Workforce Investment Act) and waiving tuition for AO students; aligning curricula to accelerate student progress; and upgrading capabilities for data collection and tracking of students.  Nearly every AO college offers a wide range of supports, particularly case management, career advising and navigation support to orient students to resources within and outside the college.

Among the key challenges facing AO is the ability of states to serve students lacking high school credentials or a GED. Early in the initiative, the Ability to Benefit provision of the federal Pell Grant program was discontinued, making this population ineligible for a crucial source of financial support. As a consequence, over two-thirds of AO students enrolled in the first year had a high school credential, many of them drawn from career and technical or developmental education courses of study. Also challenging was the implementation of team teaching: while some classrooms featured roughly equal sharing of roles between adult education and CTE instructors, in many cases basic skills instructors served more minor roles, acting as observers or aides to technical faculty. Another gap in applying the model is consistent provision and uptake of support services. While tutoring and navigation were widely offered, colleges were less likely to provide or make referrals for transportation or child care – both reported as barriers.AO students were also not uniformly aware of available services. Colleges also fell short in terms of strong employer engagement, even while all or most partnered with local workforce boards.

The first evaluation of AO has helped participating states and colleges to spotlight key areas of progress and challenges. In August 2013, state coordinators convened to discuss how they would sustain momentum while taking specific actions to address challenges – such as recruiting more adult education students lacking high school credentials and adapting new funding sources to support them. These discussions were bolstered by the strong, positive relationship that the evaluation team has developed over time with AO staff and leadership.

Ultimately, successful evaluation of pathway programs mirrors the elements of successful implementation of pathways: clear and frequent communication of the message to all involved, from college and state leadership to deans, program directors, and faculty, ensuring that all parties are “bought in” and realize value from a complex project.  Accelerating Opportunity, both initiative and evaluation, shows promising signs of progress on both counts.

Randall Wilson, a Senior Project Manager at Jobs for the Future, works on projects designed to help low-skilled adults advance to family-sustaining careers, while enabling employers to build and sustain a productive workforce. He has more than 20 years’ experience in research and program evaluation in the areas of workforce development and urban community development. He conducts research and provides technical assistance for CareerSTAT, a national initiative that encourages and enables hospitals to advance the skills and careers of frontline health care workers through work-based learning. Dr. Wilson also manages evaluations in several national initiatives that offer pathways integrating basic skills instruction with attainment of postsecondary credentials, including Accelerating Opportunity.Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith and Jeff Strohl. 2010. Help Wanted: Projection of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018. Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce. Washington, DC. June.

  1. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Survey of Adult Skills. http://www.oecd.org/site/piaac/surveyofadultskills.htm