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Accelerating Opportunity Builds Pathways to Marketable Credentials

Originally published as a guest blog on the It'sNotAcademic blog of Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, as part of Voices from HEQCO’s November 2014 conference, Hands On: Exploring Apprenticeship and the Skilled Trades. This blog can also be read in French/en français.

Right now, the United States is facing a major skills and educational attainment gap. Family-supporting jobs increasingly require a postsecondary credential. It’s estimated that, by 2018, two-thirds of all jobs will require education beyond high school, but 62% of adults today lack any credential beyond a high school diploma or GED.

And it’s not just an issue of educational attainment.  According to the 2013 OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), a landmark international study, one in six adults has weak literacy skills and nearly one in three has weak numeracy skills. Among minorities, the percentage of adults with low skill levels is even higher—35% for black adults and 43% for Hispanic adults. The data make it clear: We must seek new ways to dramatically improve the credential and degree attainment of our workforce, especially for lower-skilled, underprepared adult learners.

The challenge is that our current educational and workforce development systems have not done a great job of addressing the needs of adult learners in an effective, efficient manner. Adult learners face numerous barriers to meeting their educational and career goals, including (but not limited to) overly long, linear program sequences; schedules that make it difficult to both work and attend classes; minimal career guidance; few support services; and instruction that isn’t relevant to learners’ career goals. As a result, few of the underprepared adult learners that enroll in community college programs ever successfully earn a marketable credential.

At Jobs for the Future, we work across the education-to-career-pipeline to identify breakthrough models that improve student outcomes. Accelerating Opportunity, launched in 2011 in partnership with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, the National Council for Workforce Education and the National College Transition Network, was developed to address the challenges described above. It uses an integrated pathways approach to accelerate basic skills acquisition and directly connect instruction with career and technical training that results in an in-demand credential. Accelerating Opportunity virtually cuts in half the time students need to attain the skills training required for a good job, as the foundation learning happens simultaneously. A core element of this model is team teaching: the foundational skills instructor and career and technical instructor co-teach the class, and the curriculum is designed to meet the needs of the learner.

The Accelerating Opportunity initiative started in 32 colleges across four states and now operates in 78 community colleges in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. To date, collectively, Accelerating Opportunity colleges have developed 151 integrated pathways, and have enrolled nearly 5,400 students who have now earned more than 6,350 credentials.

We know the model works. In Kentucky, for example, 65% of the participating students earned a credential, versus 9% of a comparison group. It’s also a powerful model because it not only builds foundational learning; it connects academic skill building with career and technical training. We’ve also learned that implementing such a model requires major systems change at the state and college level. Thus far, states are investing their own money in the model, enacting policy changes to support implementation and scaling to new colleges. The states and colleges are committed to sustaining the model; they’ve seen the impact it has on underprepared learners and want to ensure it is available for all students seeking career and technical training.