Teachers College, Columbia University

New Advocacy Publication Announced: Bridges to Opportunity for Underprepared Adults: A State Policy Guide for Community College Leaders

NEW YORK, NY (December 11, 2008) — Increasing global competition and rising income inequality pose serious challenges for the continued economic and social vitality of the United States. Reports describing this situation are generally persuasive about the nature of these challenges, but the solutions they offer are often too broad or impractical.

Bridges to Opportunity for Underprepared Adults: A State Policy Guide for Community College Leaders was produced to help address these issues and is based on lessons from the Ford Foundation–funded Community College Bridges to Opportunity initiative, a multi-year effort designed to bring about changes in state policy that improve education and employment outcomes for educationally and economically disadvantaged adults.

The guide offers practical strategies and tools for addressing the need to provide large numbers of working-age adults with education and training that will allow them to secure jobs paying wages sufficient to support their families and real opportunities for social mobility in American society.

A variety of audiences will find the content, tips, and tools valuable, including governors, legislators, and state agency officials who are concerned about the competitiveness of their state’s workforce. It will be especially useful to leaders in states with few well-educated workers to replace retiring Baby Boomers or in those with large low-skill immigrant populations.

The guide is also intended for business and labor leaders. In many parts of the country, there is a strong need for skilled labor to fill “middle-skill” positions, which require postsecondary training but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Employers and labor groups in every industry want to see workers stay up-to-date with new technology and business practices.

Advocates for low-income people will also find the guide useful. Those who are interested in reducing barriers for underprepared adults to pursue and succeed in collegiate work through two-year college credentials and on to a bachelor’s degree will find helpful tips and tools in this publication. And, finally, the guide is designed as a resource for college presidents, trustees, and other education leaders who are seeking ways to better serve their communities.

Highlights of the guide include:

Improving Outcomes of Underprepared Adults, which follows the introduction, describes what states can do to break down barriers that stand in the way of the success of many underprepared adult students at community colleges. It includes examples of supportive policies implemented by the six Bridges states.

Example: Kentucky

  • Beginning in 2003, and as part of its Bridges project, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) began working with its member colleges to establish regional career pathways to support entry into and advancement in career fields of importance to local economies in the state. KCTCS sees career pathways as the framework for achieving the objectives of Bridges to integrate the remedial, workforce, and academic missions of community and technical colleges in ways that build pathways to further education and careers, particularly for underprepared working adults. Career pathways are connected educational programs with integrated work experience, on-the-job training, and support services. They enable students to combine work and learning so that they can advance over time to better jobs and higher levels of education. Career pathways programs target jobs of importance to regional economies and are thus designed both to create educational “stepping stones” for workers and job seekers and to build a steady supply of qualified workers for employers.

Successful Efforts: Bridges Case Studies examines the efforts of three states—Louisiana, Ohio and Washington—which among the six Bridges states have advanced the furthest in implementing the Bridges theory of change. The experience of these three states—each with very different higher education systems—shows that it is possible to change state policy in ways that encourage community colleges to better serve underprepared adults.

Example: Washington State

  • The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) staff, as part of its Bridges efforts, developed a plan to gain support for persuading the legislature to provide funding sufficient to meet the projected demand and work with the colleges to find ways to improve student outcomes, particularly among underprepared adults. With financial support from the Ford Foundation and technical assistance from the Bridges national partners, the SBCTC staff undertook the following activities to achieve these objectives and build support for its policy agenda:
  1. Persuaded college presidents and the State Board to affirm as a central part of the system’s mission the goal of promoting advancement by underprepared adult students;
  2. Conducted research to identify barriers to access and advancement by underprepared adults;
  3. Engaged colleges and statewide councils of faculty and student services staff in exploring ways to address barriers to advancement;
  4. Pilot tested and rigorously evaluated strategies for improving outcomes for underprepared students; and
  5. Launched a strategic communications campaign to convince policymakers and the public of the benefits to the state of improving service to underprepared adults – and of the potential costs of not doing so.

Strategies and Tools describes “toolkits” that were developed through the Bridges initiative. These toolkits can help state and local leaders implement key elements of a comprehensive strategy for cultivating state policies that support increased success by underprepared adults. Individual toolkits, which provide an in-depth “how to” manual with tools and tips from the field, are contained on a CD that accompanies this guide and are also available online at www.communitycollegecentral.org.

Example: “Bridging the Gap Between Remedial Education and Credentials and Careers” toolkit.

  • This toolkit serves as a resource to help state leaders examine and reshape policy to support the efforts of community colleges to reduce the number of students who arrive underprepared and ensure the academic success of all students. It examines five key topics—college-readiness, postsecondary transition, programming, financing, and performance accountability—that can help policymakers and educators rethink their remedial education policies and practices. It also provides tools, such as worksheets and key policy questions, for analysis and discussion of the five key topics, and it reviews national policy trends and innovative models.

Putting Strategies and Tools into Practice presents guidelines on getting started for stakeholders within and outside state government, and it provides tips on overcoming common obstacles that might be encountered. This section concludes with a summary of roles for leaders from key stakeholder groups in advocating for improved educational and career outcomes for underprepared adults.

Getting Started

  • Based on the experience of the Bridges initiative, we offer the following suggestions for initial steps to take in advocating for state policies that support community college efforts to serve underprepared adults.
  1. Assess the impact of underprepared adults on the state’s well-being.
  2. Conduct a program and policy audit.
  3. Engage insiders in crafting an agenda.
  4. Make the case in terms of the public interest.
  5. Engage “key influentials” and other stakeholders to build a coalition joined by common interests.

Example: Overcoming Obstacles to Systemic Change

  • “Ingrained Attitudes and Culture”: It almost goes without saying that efforts to bring about substantial changes in policy and practice are going to run up against an inclination to maintain the status quo. One strategy to help shift such attitudes and beliefs is to make data on student outcomes and on gaps in achievement by various student groups available to practitioners, and then to ask whether these outcomes are acceptable and whether there are efforts that they could make (along with students themselves) to increase student success. This was the approach that the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) used in presenting the research showing that students who attain the “tipping point” of at least a year of college and an occupational credential earn substantially more than those who do not – and yet very few students, particularly those who start out in adult basic skills, make it to that level. SBCTC used this research to rally educators throughout the system to the view that the tipping point is the minimum level of achievement that should be expected of students without postsecondary credentials and that concerted efforts had to be made to increase the rate at which students reach that point.

In conclusion, the Community College Bridges to Opportunity initiative believes effective and sustainable change in policy and systemic structures can only happen as a collaborative effort between policymakers and stakeholders, community colleges, community leaders, advocates and members of the community-at-large. This guide offers practical suggestions and case studies that allow its readers to see the diversity in goals and approaches taken by each of the grantee states. Identifying areas of needed improvement and goals for the future are key in assuring that policies achieve their ultimate goal: providing everyone the skills necessary to ensure economic and social vitality of the United States and to create real opportunities for social mobility in American society.

Learn more about CCRC’s work for Bridges to Opportunity.