The AO model empowers states to drive change across their community college and adult education systems to better serve adults with low basic skills. At the heart of the model are the integrated career pathways at community and technical colleges.
AO aims to address a major challenge that the United States faces: there are too many adults with low basic skills and few prospects to earn a decent living. About one in six American adults (36 million) has low literacy levels, and one in three (18 million) has low numeracy levels (OECD 2013). Adults with low basic skills may or may not have high school credentials. Eleven percent of adults lacked a high school diploma or equivalency in 2016.
Adult education programs, operated by community and technical colleges, school districts, and community-based organizations, help adults obtain a secondary school credential, such as a high school equivalency certificate or adult high school diploma, or help them improve English-language skills. However, such programs typically have few links to postsecondary education or advanced training that yield recognized occupational credentials necessary for well-paying jobs. Per the US Department of Education (2013), only 3 to 6 percent of adult education students transition to postsecondary programs and earn any type of certificate. The AO evaluation comprehensively assessed the four original AO states. The evaluation took place over the first three grant years of the initiative and aimed to produce valuable evidence for the field and to inform public policy on new approaches to serving the education and workforce needs of adults with low basic skills.
The evaluation consisted of three components:
- Implementation study: A qualitative study of the process through which states and colleges undertook, scaled, and potentially sustained AO integrated pathways and an analysis of how well the states and colleges implemented the AO model
- Impact study: A quasi-experimental analysis designed to measure the effectiveness of the AO model by comparing educational and labor-market outcomes of participants and similar students who did not participate in AO
- Cost-benefit analysis: An analysis to estimate the value of AO to society and students, comparing the costs and benefits for states, colleges, and students engaged in the AO initiative
Major Findings & Recommendations
The AO model required states and colleges to adapt existing structures and systems to meet the initiative’s overall goal of increasing the ability of students with low basic skills to earn valued occupational credentials and enter well-paying careers. These lessons from AO implementation may be valuable to other state policymakers and colleges interested in pursuing similar efforts:
- Strong state executive-level leadership and ongoing support bolster college efforts.
- State policy can support student success.
- Both college institutional factors and labor-market demand influence pathway selection.
- Team teaching is considered effective, but it requires greater investments.
- College internal partnerships are fundamental but time-intensive.
- External partners provide needed support, but deep employer engagement is challenging.
- Individualized supports are helpful for student success but difficult to sustain in the long term.
- Stakeholders at the state and college level can support scaling and sustainability.