Researchers partner with Great Cities to study career pathways programs

A group of Penn State researchers are leading the way in the study of adult education by partnering with agencies in three of the country’s largest, most diverse cities — Chicago, Houston and Miami. Funded by a nearly $400,000 grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, the researcher-practitioner partnership looks at career pathways (CP) programs and providers, and the individuals they aim to educate.

“We chose to focus on career pathways because that is a huge buzzword now in adult education, but no one really knows what it looks like on the ground” said Esther Prins, associate professor of adult education. “And with the passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, there’s now a mandate for adult education and workforce systems to work more closely together on these programs.”

Created as a way to streamline education and training services for adults, CP programs are intended to help adult learners continually achieve higher levels of education and employment. But because adult education programs have multiple funding sources and are operated by many kinds of organizations, the system is fragmented and providers may not be consistent in program offerings and characteristics. Those inconsistencies make it difficult to develop a baseline comparison for programs, an issue Prins hopes the research will address.

“Many of the more prominent career pathways programs focus on students who already have a high school degree or some college, but are missing the vast majority of people who need these programs the most."

— Esther Prins, associate professor of adult education

To better understand CP, Prins and co-principal investigators Carol Clymer and Blaire Willson Toso, connected with adult education agencies in three of the five cities included in the U.S. Department of Education Great Cities Summit, a 2010 initiative that sought to address adult education challenges in large cities across the United States.

“This is an invisible and marginalized population that has much to contribute but has really faced a lot of barriers in order to access education and employment,” she said, adding that 93 million adults have basic literacy and math skills that are below the high school level. This makes it difficult for them to find and sustain employment.

“About 20 percent of the U.S. population that has unmet literacy needs reside in the Great Cities, which are Chicago, Houston, Miami, New York and L.A.,” she said.

Working with Becky Raymond and Alex Ziskind of the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition,  Sheri Foreman Elder and Martin Loa of the Houston Center for Literacy and Mark Needle of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the researchers surveyed 102 adult education providers to learn about the types of CP services offered. The survey yielded a 72-percent response rate and found the most common services offered included English language classes, employability and work readiness courses, GED programs, and classes to help students transition to postsecondary education.

“Many of the more prominent career pathways programs focus on students who already have a high school degree or some college, but are missing the vast majority of people who need these programs the most,” Prins said, explaining that many adults in need of education are lower-skilled adults who have very basic levels of education. For example, agencies reported that 63 percent of their students do not have a high school degree, 45 percent are unemployed and 71 percent are immigrants.

“Adult learners are a forgotten, invisible, left-behind population. People care about K-12 and postsecondary education, but they often forget about adult education. We have this whole population of adults and out-of-school youth who need more education and support, and what is available is just inadequate.”

— Esther Prins

“These are people who have been left behind by the educational and economic systems,” she said. “They’re facing multiple forms of social exclusion, including poverty, unemployment or underemployment, difficulty speaking English, and literacy and math issues.”

“With the popularity of career pathways, some organizations may offer a GED or employment skills class and say that they offer career pathways,” she said. “We are more interested in structured programs that prepare people to pursue a specific educational or employment trajectory, like getting a credential for a particular career.”

The researchers identified six “core” CP services — short-term certificate programs, industry-recognized credentials, postsecondary or stackable credentials, internships, apprenticeships and transition to postsecondary education. With the exception of classes to transition to postsecondary education, the other services were offered by less than half of all agencies.

The researchers also held focus group interviews with five to seven agencies per city to gain a more in-depth understanding of what policies influence the implementation of CP programs, how programs are designed and what challenges the agencies face.

“A big issue we’ve come across is that there are very few mechanisms for finding out what’s happening to students over time, after they leave a program,” she said. “Agencies just don’t have the capacity to track that information.”

Different requirements among the various adult education funding groups also make it difficult to track student and program success. One agency in Chicago found that many of their graduates were leaving jobs with a specific employer and, therefore, the program did not meet the funder’s goal of retaining employment. However, when the agency looked into why people were leaving, it was discovered that they were offered opportunities for better paid employment. But because they were leaving, even for a good reason, the goal was technically not being fulfilled, Prins said.

“Across all the agencies we surveyed and spoke with, there was no single student outcome measure that was used by all of them,” Prins said. “That makes it difficult for programs to really compare themselves to each other and to make a case for their effectiveness.”

With one year left on the grant, the researchers continue to collect and analyze data, including case studies of six successful programs, and are looking toward the future and continuing their partnerships with the city agencies. It is Prins’ hope that as the first study to map the landscape of adult education career pathways in these cities, the results will set a baseline for more research into education and career pathways for adult learners.

“Adult learners are a forgotten, invisible, left-behind population,” she said. “People care about K-12 and postsecondary education, but they often forget about adult education. We have this whole population of adults and out-of-school youth who need more education and support, and what is available is just inadequate.”

For more information about career pathways research at Penn State, visit adultpathways.psu.edu online.

Contacts: 

Esther Prins

Work Phone: 
814-865-0597

Associate Professor of Education (Adult Education) and co-director for research, Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy and Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy

Jessica Buterbaugh

Work Phone: 
814-865-1005

marketing communications specialist,
College of Education

Last Updated August 25, 2016