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Accelerating Opportunity: Helping Low-Skill Adults Complete Their Education and Start Meaningful Careers

With the right support systems in place, colleges are more able to help low-skill adults rapidly complete their education and gain the skills and knowledge necessary to step into high-skill careers.

The following interview is with Barbara Endel, the Program Director for Breaking Through with Jobs for the Future. Endel works with the Accelerating Opportunity initiative, which seeks to change the way higher education is delivered to lower-skilled adults by integrating basic skills with occupational training, and providing intensive support for adult learners looking to be successful in high-skill careers. In this interview, Endel elaborates on the challenges faced by low-skill adults in higher education and explains why serving these students should be a priority at colleges across the country.

To listen to The EvoLLLution’s interview with Barbara Endel, please click here.

1. How did the Accelerating Opportunity initiative get off the ground?

To begin with, part of Jobs for the Future’s mission is to help more adults get into the economy and get good jobs. Almost two years ago, what we did is we approached the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation around this idea. They loved it, helped design this new initiative called “Accelerating Opportunity” and then over the last year or so we were able to attract five different funders to form a funders collaborative to come together and combine their resources and put this initiative together. It’s really exciting to get the backing of several national foundations and then what we also did is we were able to select a handful of very motivated states to work on this initiative. …

2. What are some of the challenges that lower-skilled adults face when they enroll in higher education?

To a large degree, many students… are multi-tasking to a great degree in their lives. There are competing priorities with family obligations, with possibly taking care of their elders, and many under-prepared adults are also lower-wage adults, or perhaps out of work. There are many challenges that they face, but certainly it’s something that we really believe in, in terms of creating different opportunities for students. Obviously, a four-year degree isn’t for everyone and we really believe in the diversity of opportunities for students, to get into perhaps shorter-term training—which is what Accelerating Opportunity is all about—really providing them with a pathway into a shorter-term program that might lead to a longer-term program if that’s what they want to do. Obviously this multi-tasking is a big one.

Next, the other challenge that students face are these long sequences. We sometimes believe time is the enemy when it comes to students; they don’t want to necessarily spend long sequences of time building up their foundational learning only to have to get a GED or really take part in these long sequences of courses. That’s why we designed Accelerating Opportunity—hence the name—to really provide a very fast track for students to get into the right courses, only take those, make sure they count into the future if you’re going to come back into this pathway and get into good jobs that are connected to the economy.

Last, students in this initiative and in general, a huge challenge for them is that they sometimes don’t have a pathway. They don’t always see a clear line of sight from A to B and don’t always see the value, then, of getting into higher education and what that can provide. We know that, for example, by 2018, only 36 percent of the jobs in the economy will be those that require a high school degree or less, so we know the demands are always greater. If we can provide students, then, with these clear systems or pathways so that they can get into college, get out, and come back in when they need to; we think that will also help the challenge of having them complete, and see what the future looks like.

3. How does the initiative help students overcome those challenges?

Part of what we’re also doing in the Initiative is essentially helping students fund their higher education. We have what’s called a “braided funding strategy”. Resources have been declining over several decades for adult learners. One of the challenges that students face with this multi-tasking is they may be working two or more jobs, and may not be able to afford the training that they want to do. Maybe they can’t afford to get into that welding program or that medical coding program, et cetera. So what we have put into the initiative is a braided funding strategy.

The states that we’re working with, together with the community colleges that are the partners in this initiative are really helping students find ways to make sure they can pay for the tuition. That’s a key way we’re really supporting students’ success moving forward.

4. The idea that there’s intensive support for adult learners, is that support financial or are there support services in place for adult students?

There are financial aid supports as I’ve just mentioned. This initiative is also around helping students, for example, with career guidance. We know students actually have interest in and a more complete understand of the occupation training that they want to enter, that they’ll be far more likely to be successful, get a job, stay in the field. Career counseling is a huge piece of what we do and that’s embedded in most of the programs that we’re working with.

Secondly, advising. Making sure students have the right classes and the flexibility to fit their busy schedules. …

The other thing that many of our community colleges are doing is they’re helping students make sure that they’re maximizing their benefits. … For example, if they qualify for certain programs that may help them with childcare or transportation. Those are the full intensive supports that we’re hoping to provide, and that we are providing, for students in the initiative.

5. Why is it important for higher education institutions to take immediate action in supporting the education of lower-skilled adults?

Basically, with higher education we know that the success rate of all students in at least community colleges hovers between anywhere from 18 percent to 40 percent. That’s at the best community colleges in the country. A shocking statistic that we find is that if an adult learner doesn’t have a GED and they may start out in the adult education area—which is called adult basic education—only three to six percent ever truly transition into post-secondary education and wind up with some kind of credential or degree. We find that shocking.

What this initiative is doing is really putting the focus into helping students with these pathway programs that are aligned to the labor market, more directly provide support services, really putting the focus on helping students in this category which has never really been a big focus of community colleges in the past.

We think that, essentially, if community colleges and higher education, if you care about all the students in your pipeline, then you need to be caring also about those at the very beginning, those that have the most need and educational preparation. We’re finally turning attention to this area and we’ve got many motivated states that are part of this now, that are into this initiative.

6. What needs to happen for the adult education system to improve overall?

We believe that in addition to time and money—which is something we all would greatly benefit from—we really are trying to focus this initiative, Accelerating Opportunity, to be a national movement around the way adult basic education is delivered in this country. We think that that is a system where you’re putting together these integrated pathways aligned to the labor market and it’s really providing students without a GED or a high school diploma a shot at getting into a community college course.

Part of this model is having students into community college courses that qualify, having an adult basic education teacher in the classroom at the same time and we’re just finding that that’s great teaching and students are able to come out with likely their GED at the same time together with a credential so they can get going into a good job. Currently in the initiative we have five states that came on-board at the beginning of the year and we just added Mississippi and possibly Georgia as an associate state. We’re already seeing we’ve got seven states that are interested in this and I think many more will come on-board. What I mean by that systems change is that they really provide integrated pathways at the beginning of an adult learners’ education so they have better success, and that’s what we’re really hoping to do.

7. Is there anything you’d like to add about the Accelerating Opportunity initiative or the importance of delivering better higher education supports and services to adult students?

My final comment is that we’re just so excited about the focus on these learners. It’s absolutely the right way to go for the country. It’s absolutely the right way to go for states and community colleges if they want to have better success rates for their most under-prepared students. There’s evidence that it works; Washington state and our partners in this initiative have been huge pioneers in this work and we’re just very grateful that our funders and our partners and all our states that are starting to work on this and do this very hard work are behind it.

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