Resources & Publications

From Adult Education to College: Success Factors, Challenges, and Tools

Feb 13, 2014

By Manuela Ekowo and Vickie Choitz

A recent MDRC report, Beyond the GED: Promising Models for Moving High School Dropouts to College, provides a snapshot of innovative adult education programs and the challenges involved in helping high school dropouts acquire a GED and gain postsecondary credentials. Considering that nearly 39 million adults in the U.S do not have a high school diploma, and fewer than 5 percent of GED recipients go on to enroll in college or other adult education programs, this issue is critical.

The study finds that the most successful adult education programs for high school dropouts contextualize basic skills and GED instruction within specific career fields and support students in their transition to college. These programs offer more rigorous academic curricula, as well as support services such as career and college admissions advising. Supporting students in their transition to college has been shown to increase the rate of their entry, persistence, and success.

Unfortunately, fragmented funding streams, lack of coordination among government agencies, and lack of college-readiness courses for those with skills below the ninth-grade level often make adult education programs less effective than they could be.

By limiting participation in these innovative programs to students with skills at the ninth grade level or above, Adult Basic Education (ABE) and Adult Secondary Education (ASE) programs are effectively barring 80 percent of students from these innovations.  This is even more startling when one considers that 40 percent of students have skills below the sixth grade level.

One way to tackle the issue is to offer career pathway bridge programs, which provide targeted basic skills or English language instruction to lower-skilled adults and youth. These bridge programs, which often begin at the sixth grade level, enable students to enter and succeed in career pathways. For those with the lowest skill levels, there are even some “pre-bridge” programs to prepare them for the career pathway bridge. Bridge and pre-bridge “on-ramps” are essential features of career pathways in CLASP’s Alliance for Quality Career Pathways (AQCP), a two-year initiative with 10 leading career pathway states to identify criteria and indicators that define high-quality career pathway systems and a set of shared performance metrics for measuring and managing their success.

Fragmented funding is also a major challenge. Adult education programs have come to survive on a complicated array of federal and state funding streams, which are managed by numerous government agencies. Each of these funding streams comes with different restrictions and performance measures that are not well-aligned. This is a common challenge for career pathway efforts, as well, which is why CLASP developed a funding toolkit for career pathways and career pathway bridges to help interagency state teams identify and use federal resources to support career pathways and career pathway bridges for adults and out-of-school youth. The toolkit helps state agency staff and practitioners identify opportunities for braiding funding streams and begin creating plans and partnerships toward this end.

More attention should be paid to the number of individuals without a high school diploma and effective strategies to help them obtain their GED and postsecondary credentials. With this report, MDRC has highlighted very promising models for doing so.

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