- Intentionally design and structure career pathways to enable students to further their education, secure a job, and advance in employment.
- Deliver contextualized or integrated basic skills instruction to accelerate students’ entry into and successful completion of career pathways.
- Offer flexible instructional delivery schedules and models to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways.
- Provide coordinated comprehensive student supports to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways.
- Develop and continuously leverage partnerships to prepare students and advance their labor market success.
Led by the WWC’s postsecondary contractor, Abt Associates, this practice guide was created by an expert panel of researchers and practitioners to provide examples of career pathways strategies and components and guidance to implement them; advise on strategies to overcome potential obstacles; and summarize evidence associated with rigorous research studies that met WWC standards.
As a long-time researcher of postsecondary CTE and many other important aspects of community college education, I welcome the opportunity to reflect on these five recommendations. I hope that my blog will help readers understand how this new practice guide fits into a larger landscape of research focusing on programs, policies, and practices aligned with the career pathways framework. Far from new, the notion of career pathways goes back several decades; thus, it is not surprising that we see an evolution in research to measure students’ education and employment outcomes. And still, there is a need for more rigorous studies of career pathways.
The Abt team located about 16,000 studies that were potentially relevant to the practice guide. Those studies used a wide variety of methods, data (quantitative and qualitative), and analysis procedures. Only 61 of them were eligible for review against the WWC standards, however; and only 21 of those met the WWC standards. Interestingly, most of those 21 studies focused on non-degree postsecondary credentials, rather than on college degrees, with policies and programs associated with workforce development and adult education well represented. Thus, lessons from the practice guide speak more directly to career pathways programs that culminate in credentials below the associate degree level than about those programs leading to the associate or baccalaureate degree level.
This dearth of rigorous career pathways research is problematic, as educational institutions of all types, including community colleges, seek to deliver positive, equitable outcomes to students during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Focus on Career Pathways
After examining the evidence from the studies that met the WWC standards, it was clear that the evidence converged around career pathways programs following requirements in the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). In alignment with the WIOA definition of career pathways, the set of studies in the practice guide examine a “combination of rigorous and high-quality education, training, and other services” that align with the skill needs of industries in the region or state and accelerate participants’ educational and career advancement, to the extent practicable.
As defined by WIOA, career pathways support learners in pursuing their education and career goals, lead to at least one postsecondary credential, and provide entry or advancement in a particular occupation or occupational cluster. Because a growing number of community colleges employ a career pathways approach, as advocated by the federal legislation, it made sense to focus the practice guide on rigorous results and evidence-based recommendations that may help to move career pathway design and implementation forward.
The Five Recommendations
Recommendation 1: Intentionally design and structure career pathways to enable students to further their education, secure a job, and advance in employment. Our panel advocated for the intentional design and structure of career pathways for good reason. Whereas all educational institutions enroll students in courses and programs, career pathways prioritize the student’s entire educational experience, from access and entry, to completion and credentialing, and on to employment and career advancement. This purposeful approach to supporting student attainment is theorized to lead to positive student outcomes.
Applying the meta-analysis process required by the WWC, we determined from the 21 studies whether career pathways were achieving this crucial goal. We found nine of the studies showed overall statistically significant, positive results on industry-recognized credential attainment. Of the 12 studies supporting this recommendation, most measured non-degree credentials; only two measured degree attainment—an important point to recognize, because these are the studies that have been conducted thus far.
This very small number of rigorous studies measuring degree attainment leaves open the question of whether career pathways increase postsecondary degree attainment—specifically the predominant credential in the community college context, the associate degree—and calls for greater investment in research on student completion of associate degrees (as well as baccalaureate degrees, a growing phenomenon in the United States).
Recommendation 2. Deliver contextualized or integrated basic skills instruction to accelerate students’ entry into and successful completion of career pathways. Studies that met WWC standards showed a positive impact of career pathways on college credit accumulation and industry-recognized credential attainment. Only one study measured postsecondary degree attainment relative to contextualized and basic skills instruction and it reported statistically significant and negative results. However, descriptive and correlational studies suggest that contextualized and basic skills instruction contribute to positive educational outcomes for students enrolled in Adult Basic Education in addition to postsecondary CTE and workforce training.
That results of rigorous research complement descriptive studies, some of which provide rich details on program implementation, is information useful for scaling up community college career pathways. Having said this, we still need to know more about how contextualized, basic skills instruction—and other applied instructional interventions—affect the outcomes of students, especially those from racial minoritized groups, with low incomes, and who are the first generation to attend college, all purported to be well served by the career pathways approach.
Recommendation 3: Offer flexible instructional delivery schedules and models to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways. Studies supporting this recommendation focused on five education outcomes: industry-recognized credential attainment, academic performance, technical skill proficiency, credit accumulation, and postsecondary degree attainment. As seen with the previous two recommendations, results on industry-recognized credential attainment were statistically significant and positive. Results on academic performance, technical skill proficiency, and credit accumulation were indeterminate, meaning findings could be positive or negative but were not statistically significant.
What is important to reiterate here is that nearly all the studies that met the WWC standards focused on non-degree credentials, providing limited information about results on the education outcome of postsecondary degree attainment. To be clear, our panel is not saying career pathways should focus exclusively on non-degree credentials; rather that results on postsecondary degree attainment are not definitive. Even so, that findings linking flexible scheduling and non-degree credential attainment are positive is important to know now, when the country is dealing with the pandemic.
Community colleges nationwide are rethinking instructional delivery to better meet students’ dire health, family, and employment needs. Rigorous research on career pathways interventions, such as flexible delivery, is needed, particularly studies involving diverse student populations. In times of economic and social struggle, it is essential that community college career pathways produce the equitable outcomes they purport to provide.
Recommendation 4: Provide coordinated comprehensive student supports to improve credit accumulation and completion of non-degree credentials along career pathways. The rigorous studies meeting WWC standards and measuring outcomes relative to comprehensive student supports focused on the education outcome domain only. Similar to the previous recommendation on flexible scheduling, findings on industry-recognized credential attainment were statistically significant and positive. However, on supports, findings on credit accumulation were statistically significant and positive, reinforcing findings generated by other studies showing holistic supports improve student outcomes. For example, a meta-analysis of studies of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grants that used rigorous evaluation designs reported favorable results for holistic supports in counseling and advising, case management, and various other support services and educational outcomes.
Consistent with the recommendations in this practice guide, a growing body of evidence favors integrating comprehensive student supports with career pathways. These supports are intended to meet the needs of the diverse population of students who attend community colleges; so, they should demonstrate equitable results on educational outcomes. More rigorous research is needed to measure whether and how career pathways provide access, opportunity, and outcomes for racially minoritized, low-income, and other underserved student groups. These studies should ascertain the impact of student supports on both education and employment outcomes, recognizing that students seek a high-quality credential and a good job that offers economic security and career mobility.
Recommendation 5: Develop and continuously leverage partnerships to prepare students and advance their labor market success. This recommendation specifically emphasizes labor market success, based on studies that examine labor market outcomes only. Supporting this recommendation were findings from studies of four labor market outcomes: short-term employment, short-term earnings, medium-term employment, and medium-term earnings. (The studies did not include long-term findings.)
Overall, statistically significant and positive outcomes were found in the meta-analysis for short-term employment, short-term earnings, and medium-term earnings. However, for medium-term employment, the meta-analysis results were indeterminate. To clarify, this does not mean employment-focused partnerships do not lead to labor market success; instead it points to a dearth of research that tracks students through training and into employment for long enough to measure long-term outcomes.
Even so, these initial findings from the meta-analysis are promising and suggest that developing and leveraging such partnerships may help move the needle on short- and medium-term employment outcomes. Longitudinal research that tracks students for periods sufficient to know whether long-term employment and earnings are affected should be a priority in the future.
As I reflect on the research that I have conducted on career pathways over the years, I am gratified to see mounting evidence of positive student outcomes. As a first-generation college student myself, it has always made sense to me to demystify the college education process. Helping learners understand the entire educational journey, from start to finish, is bound to help them see how what they are learning may contribute to future education and career choices. I went to college not knowing what it would be like or whether I would be able to succeed, and I benefited from faculty and advisors who helped me see how my future could progress.
For other students like me who enter college without the benefit of family members sharing their stories of college-going, and for those who have to balance school with work and family care-taking responsibilities, it is important to know how a college education, including postsecondary CTE, can lead to positive educational and employment outcomes. Student groups underserved by postsecondary education deserve our most resolute and far-reaching efforts.
To this end, additional rigorous evidence on the impact of postsecondary CTE on college degree attainment could help to inform career pathways design, funding, and implementation. Also, as I reflected on the five recommendations, I was struck by the modest amount of research on medium-term labor market outcomes and the lack of any studies of long-term labor market outcomes. When the focus of career pathways is creating a path to living-wage employment and career advancement over the long term, it isn’t enough to know that students’ immediate employment outcomes were improved. When many students attending community colleges are already working, it isn’t even clear what immediate employment means.
If the outcome of interest for the majority of community college students who are adults and working is whether they get a better job and higher salary than they were getting pre-education, more nuanced measures and longer follow-up periods are needed than those provided by any of the research reviewed for this practice guide. It seems to me that finding more evidence of medium- and long-term outcomes could also provide more useful evidence of how career pathways work for diverse learner groups who are under-studied at the present time.
I was honored to help develop the practice guide with Hope Cotner, Grant Goold, Eric Heiser, Darlene Miller, and Michelle Van Noy. What an enormously gratifying experience it was to work with these professionals, the WWC team at Abt, and the Institute of Education Sciences staff. Working on this practice guide has left me feeling more optimistic about what we could learn with a more sizeable federal investment in research on postsecondary CTE in general, and on career pathways specifically. Rigorous evidence is needed to test models, explore interventions, and understand results for the plethora of learner groups who attend community colleges.
As the nation struggles to pull out of the pandemic that continues to rage in pockets across the country, it is the right time to invest in research that helps prepare students for good jobs that advance living-wage careers over a lifetime. A true commitment to equity in CTE programming is necessary for the nation, and now is the time to invest.
Debra D. Bragg, PhD, is president of Bragg & Associates, Inc., and the founder of research centers focusing on community college education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Washington. She spent the first 15 years of her career in academe studying postsecondary CTE for federally funded research centers, having devoted her entire research agenda to improving education- and employment-focused policies, programs, and practices to create more equitable outcomes for community college students. She served as an expert panelist for the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC)’s Designing and Delivering Career Pathways at Community Colleges practice guide.