Career Pathways: A Strategy to Boost College Completion and Economic Mobility

By Julie Strawn

Implications for policy and practice:

  1. Target family-sustaining jobs and careers from the outset in college workforce training, rather than focusing on low-wage jobs initially and assuming workers will return for further education later.
  2. Combine high expectations for students with high levels of structure and support to tackle multiple barriers to completion simultaneously.
  3. Expand access to high-quality training for students at all levels by incorporating academic support into workforce training and adopting reforms that help students move into college courses more quickly.
  4. Connect the college experience to career outcomes through industry partnerships and work-based learning.

This is a critical moment for our nation’s economy, employers, and workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and widened existing economic divides and has disproportionately harmed workers with lower levels of education. Policymakers are seeking to help these workers reverse their losses and advance from low-wage jobs to family-sustaining employment. One way to address that challenge is to get more people access to education and training that prepare them for better jobs, and to make that education and training more effective. Community and technical colleges can play a central role in in this effort if they can boost their often low completion rates and guide more students toward credentials that can pay off substantially in the labor market. Career pathways approaches provide colleges one strategy for reaching these goals. They train people for a series of occupations in an industry sector that require progressively higher levels of skill and offer increasing levels of pay; they also offer students comprehensive support inside and outside the classroom. This brief explores insights about student success and economic mobility drawn from rigorous research on career pathways strategies.

Career pathways programs substantially increase credential completion and employment in targeted industries, but often do not improve earnings. Extensive rigorous research (experimental and quasi-experimental studies) exists on the impact of career pathways programs and related approaches, such as sector training.[1] A recent meta-analysis of 46 impact evaluations finds that these programs on average substantially increased receipt of postsecondary credentials (by 155 percent) and employment in the industries targeted for training (by 72 percent), as shown in Figure 1. However, programs increased earnings by only a small average amount in the short term, and not at all after three or more years. These overall results mask wide variation in the interventions studied, their impacts and goals, their program structures and services, the industries and occupations they targeted, and the populations they served.

Chart showing impacts on education and labor market outcomes in a recent meta-analysis of Career Pathways

A closer look at the meta-analysis findings suggests that larger earnings impacts are associated with characteristics more commonly found in private, nonprofit sector training programs than in community college ones. These types of sector training programs tend to have stronger employer partnerships than community college programs typically do, and are highly selective (often screening out 4 of 5 applicants) where community college training programs serve a much wider range of applicants. They also spend more per participant than colleges, target industries other than health care more often, and are more likely to have tightly defined and controlled models.

One highly successful program, Project Quest, combines characteristics of community college career pathways programs with those of sector training, and has enabled its participants to increase college credential completion, employment, and earnings through 11 years of follow-up data collection. Like other well-known sector training programs, Project Quest is run by a private, nonprofit organization and has strong relationships with employers. However, training is provided by community colleges and participants resemble those in community college career pathway programs: most are over age 25, most have school-age children, the majority are assessed as needing to improve their academic preparation, and their average annual earnings before the program are well below the federal poverty level. Early results from an effort to replicate Project Quest, the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA), have been promising: VIDA increased receipt of credentials requiring a year or more of training, including associate’s degrees, and had positive effects on college enrollment, credits, and credentials that were still growing at the end of the fourth year after enrollment.

With federal and state aid, colleges could help more adults complete credentials and move up economically by combining features of proven career pathways and sector training approaches, along with other comprehensive student success models. A broader look at rigorous evidence on these approaches suggests colleges could improve educational and labor market results by bundling several strategies.

Target family-supporting jobs and careers from the outset, rather than initially focusing on low-wage jobs.

Many career pathways and other training programs prepare students for the same low-wage jobs that less educated workers are likely to obtain on their own, such as nursing aide positions. Policymakers and practitioners may believe such jobs are just a first step and students will return later for higher-level training for better jobs. Unfortunately, research to date indicates that most career pathways students who enroll in entry-level training do not subsequently return for higher-level training. If college workforce training programs are to make a lasting difference in workers’ lives, they need to change the trajectory of workers’ careers, and that may mean not settling for the quick fix of low-wage jobs. Project Quest, for example, purposely targets mid-level health care credentials requiring one to three years of training, and supports students over the long haul. This approach involves trade-offs; for example, there may be higher attrition in longer programs and less access for those with lower levels of basic skills, since health care programs of this type are more challenging academically. Such programs are not the right fit for everyone. But it is likely that more workers could enter and complete higher-level training for better-paying jobs if they received support to do so. In addition, labor market research finds that broad, transferable skills may play a major role in determining which students move up to higher-paying jobs over time. This research implies that skills such as problem-solving and communication should also be incorporated into training efforts aimed at career advancement.

Combine high expectations with comprehensive support to tackle multiple barriers to completion.

The most successful sector training programs include certain common elements that encourage commitment and support completion; many of these are shared by leading comprehensive student success approaches such as the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) at the City University of New York, which nearly doubled graduation rates and has been replicated successfully elsewhere. First, these programs are more structured than the typical community college experience. For example, ASAP and leading sector training programs such as Per Scholas and Year Up require full-time attendance. Project Quest also requires full-time attendance in occupational training (though students can take initial basic skills and prerequisite courses part time). Second, these programs require students to participate in intensive academic and career advising; they also help students address personal, work, and family issues that can derail success. Third, they cover most or all training costs; Year Up even provides participants with stipends for its six months of training and an additional six months in internships. Such stipends, if available to students in community college training, could make full-time attendance more feasible, especially for adult learners, for whom living expenses such as rent, food, and transportation can present a central challenge to pursuing longer, higher-level training programs.

Expand access to high-quality training for students at all levels by incorporating academic support and helping students move into college courses more quickly.

Gaps in academic preparation can often pose insurmountable roadblocks to entering and completing training. Washington’s I-BEST instructional model, which combines “contextualized” basic skills instruction with career training, shows it is possible to greatly increase the proportion of students who complete credentials (nearly doubling it) for those whose low test scores or lack of a high school diploma would typically keep them out of training.[2] Other states have successfully pursued similar strategies. For example, Wisconsin has embedded contextualized academic support into training courses or required labs, and has offered this support through concurrent, “corequisite” classes. The corequisite approach has also been used successfully to help students progress in developmental (remedial) education and college-level courses simultaneously. Another strategy for enabling students to move into college courses more quickly is to use high school grades and not just test scores for placement decisions, which allows more students to show they can bypass developmental education. And some training programs, such as Project Quest and VIDA, offer intensive, short bridge courses to help students prepare for placement tests and college-level work.

Connect the college experience more closely to career outcomes through industry partnerships and work-based learning.

Improving these connections can boost students’ earnings and promote more equitable labor market outcomes. Work-based learning may also help more students complete credentials by providing them opportunities to apply skills. Inequality in the labor market is not just a consequence of inequality in education, so improving credential completion alone cannot fix it. Systematic biases, especially against people of color and women, social networks that limit which jobs and employers workers can connect to, and employers’ strong preference to hire those who already have relevant work experience can all combine to make it difficult for people to get access to employers and careers that offer family-supporting wages. Work-based learning can help offset those disadvantages by using a college or training program’s relationships and credibility to open doors. Year Up’s paid internships in professional settings, for example, are viewed as integral to its success in producing sustained earnings increases (of 38 percent after five years) for young adults, most of whom are people of color. Apprenticeships offer another potential avenue by which work-based learning could increase college completion rates, earnings, and equity, if they were expanded to include more diverse participants.[3] Apprenticeships are already often connected to colleges that deliver classroom training components leading to college credentials.

New federal and state investments could spur substantial progress toward higher college completion rates and greater economic mobility by incorporating evidence-based strategies like these. To sustain progress, policymakers and administrators should think deeply and creatively about how such investments could support the policy and institutional changes needed to embed such strategies into the community college experience so that they become standard practice.

Additional Resources:

[1]Quasi-experimental research designs use rigorous statistical methods to try to estimate the effects caused by interventions, but do not involve random assignment to program and control groups as experimental designs do. Sector training programs prepare people for in-demand jobs in targeted industries and occupational clusters. They often involve private, nonprofit organizations that collaborate closely with employers.

[2]Contextualized instruction refers to the instructional strategy that grounds academic or skill-building concepts in real-world examples and materials (for example, teaching math concepts by discussing how they are applied in a health care setting).

[3]Apprenticeships are structured, work-based training programs that combine technical instruction in a classroom with learning and mentoring experiences at an employer’s work site. Apprentices are employed during their training and earn progressively higher wages. Apprenticeships provide training in a specific occupation and deliver occupational skills that are recognized and transferrable across employers. For case studies of how such programs are implemented, see this recent report.


Julie Strawn conducted research and provided technical assistance as a principal associate for Abt Associates from 2014 to 2022. Her work focuses on workforce development and postsecondary education for adults.