A Cross Case Analysis of Career Pathway Programs that Link Low-Skilled Adults to Family Sustaining Wage Careers

This descriptive study extends what is known about career pathway programs’ curricula, instruction, supportive components and policy. 

D. Bragg
C. Bremer
M. Castellano
C. Kirby
A. Mavis
D. Schaad
J. Sunderman
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, University of Minnesota
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This descriptive study extends what is known about career pathway programs’ curricula, instruction, supportive components and policy. Researchers addressed the question: “What programs, policies, and practices, particularly curricular, institutional and support strategies, are currently being implemented to support the transition of low-skilled adults through career pathways that align with post-secondary CTE [career and technical education]?” (p.vii)

Data collected from various sources resulted in narrowing the focus to three identified programs—Carreras en Salud-Instituto del Progresso Latino, General Service Technician-Shoreline Community College, and Career Pathways Initiative-Ouachita Technical College. In general, these programs are committed “to enrolling and serving low-skilled adults” (p. viii). Each program is described with individual aspects (e.g., leadership, partnerships, policy, programming) addressed in detail, and the authors also summarize common features across programs. The report concludes with implications for policy and practice.

What the experts say

This resource addresses a very timely topic: the focus of policymakers and funders on transitions, career pathways, and workforce development. This analysis of three diverse programs describes in detail the framework, curriculum, instruction, and support services needed to create successful career pathway programs for low-skilled adults. It examines issues of funding and sustainability in the context of different types of programs—rural (Arkansas), urban (Chicago), suburban (near Seattle) and industry—specific versus a broader career spectrum approach. The study focuses on a key element of pathway programs: the complex partnerships between education and industry; instructors in Adult Basic Education (ABE), and Community and Technical Colleges; and community-based programs. In discussing these realities directly, the study does not shy away from defining issues that need to be considered. Programs interested in, or already engaged in, career pathway endeavors will find this useful and affirming information.

This in-depth, descriptive study using qualitative methods is useful to those in community colleges that have made a commitment to serve low-income, low-literate (and ESL) adult learners. The analyses are detailed enough to provide insights into the planning process and strategies undertaken for success. It is striking that all programs attribute their successes to the leadership and commitment provided by the key participants. They all recognize the difficulties of serving this population with its many barriers to success. Yet they all go beyond ordinary expectations to serve those who are the most difficult to serve.

It is notable that all three programs provide flexibility in entry into the programs so that a “stackable, modularized curriculum provided students with multiple entry and exit options.” (p. 74). The goal, of course, is occupational certification and/or degrees that are tied to various exit points. All programs provided contextualized education in which occupational training is integrated with ABE and ESL training. Individualization of the curriculum was emphasized, for example, by offering computer-assisted instruction.

The ambivalent attitude toward inclusion of community college developmental/remedial programs is interesting and informative to community college leadership. These courses, for the most part, were considered inflexible, not providing the biggest payoff for the students’ tuition grant aid. However, when students did not meet admission criteria to occupational training programs, these college programs had to be used in spite of their limitations. (None of the three career pathway programs tried to change the focus of the community college developmental/remedial programs,)

The importance of policy coordination and realignment came out of the study. Sometimes policies designed for one sector conflicted with the needs of the career pathway programs serving very non-traditional students. Involvement of all the stakeholders from the multiple partnerships is important in planning and implementation.

In spite of the authors’ concern that the research timeframe was constrained, preventing analyses of outcome data, the resource is worthwhile reading for its descriptions of the three exemplary programs. These programs are challenging to implement but important in their goals. Although the programs are very different, the commonalities are useful to those readers who are designing integrated career pathway programs. It challenges community colleges to serve the “hardest to serve” populations in innovative ways.

Significant features

  • Charts summarize primary roles and responsibilities of players involved in each model. These charts would be useful for staff charged with the task of writing Memos of Understanding (MOU’s) and formalizing partnerships.
  • The report is dense but easy to follow with accompanying flow charts and graphic comparisons of key features to keep the reader on track.
  • This analysis is geared to an audience of policymakers and administrators. It would be a helpful resource for decision-makers and could be used by writers of RFP’s to create guidelines for allocation of resources and program structure.
  • The report has a section on barriers and challenges. It states in the findings that there are further needs for systemic tracking of outcomes, aligning curriculum, and combining multiple funding sources. Once again, this type of information can be used to strengthen programs in the future.
  • The three appendices contain concise profiles of other career pathway programs and provide good resources for follow-up reading.

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: The qualitative research project used a case study method to collect data via multiple venues and stages. The first stage consisted of a literature review. At the next stage, researchers convened a panel of nationally-recognized experts to share information and identify key topics or themes. The third stage consisted of phone interviews with 100 organizations that had been identified as having some form of career pathway programming; 27 programs were selected for in-depth semi-structured interviews. Data from these interviews were entered into a database; three programs were selected based upon geographic, topic, and other criteria. The next stage involved site visits to these career pathway programs. Data was gathered during 3-day site visits, using one-on-one and small group interviews (program administrators, faculty, students, employers, counselors, support personnel, other stakeholders). Researchers also contacted interviewees to clarify or follow-up on unanswered questions. Researchers also engaged in observations and documents analysis. Patterns and themes were identified during the data analysis.

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