Solid Evidence for Career Pathways Out of Poverty

By Judy Mortrude

Project QUEST in San Antonio was a pioneer in creating what is now known as an adult career pathway program. The program combines sector strategies, comprehensive support services, community-based career navigators, foundational skill building, and community college postsecondary training. Strong evaluation results prove the effectiveness of this model for increasing the earnings of low-income adults. Promisingly, career pathways are now a defined service delivery model for equity investments in communities of need in three federal education and workforce development laws: the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the Higher Education Act (HEA), and the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V).

Most studies of career pathways have only followed participants for a few years past graduation. However, a new longitudinal study, Nine Year Gains: Project QUEST’s Continuing Impact, followed participants for nine years and demonstrates beyond a doubt that career pathway programs are smart investments that support graduates in moving out of poverty and into the middle class.

When considering the effectiveness of Project QUEST, it’s important to keep its regional economic context in mind. A cost-of-living comparison shows the program’s graduates earned over $46,000 in San Antonio, which would translate to earnings “equivalent to approximately $62,000 in Chicago, $75,000 in Los Angeles, and $78,000 in Washington, DC, to maintain the same standard of living.”  

This study uses administrative data sets, not student surveys, to unequivocally demonstrate the career advancement value of career pathways. Notably, Project QUEST serves the priority populations of public education and workforce development systems. The participants in this randomized controlled trial were largely low-income, working, middle-aged, Latina moms with barriers to employment. As the first two years of earnings demonstrates, the women paid the opportunity costs of participating in the training in order to gain long-term benefits for themselves and their families.

This program model needs to be scaled for impact, and policymakers need to stop piling on (paper)work requirements in the public benefit programs that are integral to the success of the program’s participants. Instead, policymakers should support meaningful career pathway opportunities like those provided through Project QUEST.

Policymakers are responding by proposing the Gateways to Careers Act that would increase federal investment in career pathways and double down on “evidence-based” interventions. Project QUEST and the research of the Economic Mobility Corporation, which conducted the study of the program, continue to lead the way for community partners seeking to build pathways out of poverty for our communities.

Note: Graphs are republished from Nine Year Gains: Project QUEST’s Continuing Impact.