Transitioning Adults to College: Adult Basic Education Program Models

This paper is based on a review of 25 college transition programs and more than 40 postsecondary institutions studied by the New England Literacy Resource Center.

C. Zafft
S. Kallenbach
J. Spohn
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)
Harvard Graduate School of Education
National College Transition Network, World Education, Inc.
Publication Year
Resource Type
Instructional Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

A typology of ABE-to-college transition programs was developed from analysis of program data and resulted in five models of college transition programs. Postsecondary goals, program features, and strengths and limitations of each program model are discussed. The authors also provide an overview of state-level approaches for adult transitions to postsecondary education. Although an assessment of the effectiveness of each model was not part of the study, a comparison and discussion of each transition model describes how adult educators might adapt a model and/or combinations of models appropriate for their environment. The authors conclude by providing recommendations in the areas of assessment and outcomes, funding, professional development, collaborations, and directions for further research.

Required Training


What the experts say

This paper receives ‘5 stars’ and is a must-read for practitioners in both ABE and developmental studies, state and national level administrators, researchers, and policy-makers interested in supporting undereducated adults to not only access college and career development programs, but also persist and succeed.  The study provides much needed data in this relatively new area for the ABE field and creates a foundation for further research.  The most useful features of this study are numerous:

  • the development of a typology for ABE to college transition programs (the five models are advising, GED plus, ESOL, career pathways, and college preparatory) that describes a number of possibilities for configuring transitions programming and opens the door to further developments;
  • an analysis of the advantages and limitations of each that can serve to help others adapt and build on these models;
  • the development of the “adult transition program grid”, an analytical framework for describing the type and intensity of specific transitions models that can help practitioners “locate” the type of programming that exists or needs to be created;
  • the profiling of four states that have developed transitions initiatives, underscoring the importance of systems level change and support;
  • policy recommendations that call for improvements and action in assessment and outcomes, funding, professional development, collaborations, and further research. 

This resource can be a valuable tool for initiating discussions and preliminary program planning for college transitions at the local, state, and national levels.

Local Implications:

  • The typology of the five models (Advising, GED-Plus, ESOL, Career Pathways, and College Preparatory) provides a starting point for local practitioners to examine their current transition practices and assess possible options for expansion or improvement.  By examining the needs of their learners, coupled with existing program and funding capacity, local practitioners can adapt and/or combine various components of the models to customize a transitions framework that meets their needs.
  • Of particular usefulness are the charts that illustrate the strengths and limitations of each model.  The charts can be used to help local programs explore options for building upon the strengths and minimizing the limitations through alternative strategies.
  • The introductory sections of the resource include helpful statistics and cited findings related to the benefits and challenges of postsecondary education for adult learners.  These data can be helpful in illustrating the need for an increased focus on transition services and building advocacy for increased funding to promote those services.

State Implications:

  • The five models provide an opportunity for states to engage the field in meaningful transitions discussions through taskforces, regional meetings, webinars, etc.  By getting local practitioners involved in examining the strengths and limitations of each model, state leadership can gain valuable input into the usefulness, adaptability, and feasibility of models most appropriate to local program needs.
  • The four state profiles provide useful insight into the decision making processes of state-level approaches to adult transitions.  The four states (Connecticut, Kentucky, Oregon, and Maine) represent varied state governance structures, student demographics, and funding capacities.  This diversity helps to demonstrate how state-level transitions initiatives can be moved forward in various scenarios. 
  • Despite the differences among the states, the identification of their common challenges and lessons learned can be particularly helpful to all state adult education leaders.  For example, findings revealed a need at the state level for:
    • Recognition that increased education of adults was (and is) essential to the economic well-being of each state and that preparation for and transition into postsecondary education through adult education is a core mechanism to accomplish this state goal;
    • Identification and development of resources to invest in the development of adult transition models;
    • Cross-agency collaborations and partnerships on state and local levels to connect key stakeholders and maximize resources;
    • Identification and dissemination of local expertise and promising strategies through workgroups and pilot projects;
    • Model development by creating systemic mechanisms to address key barriers;
    • Use of the state’s RFP process to move the transition field forward by funding model development and requiring specific strategies as essential components of competitive grants;
    • Rigorous professional development;
    • Integrated or cross-system automated student record systems;
    • Dual enrollment policies;
    • Long-term funding mechanisms; and
    • Curriculum alignment.
  • The study includes a set of five recommendations related to assessment and outcomes, funding, professional development, collaborations, and further research that can be particularly helpful to state adult education leaders.  These recommendations can be used in several ways:  (1) to frame a strategic planning transitions document and subsequent operational plan, (2) to inform revisions to current program standards or indicators of program quality, (3) to assess the need for changes in current policies and procedures, (4) to inform funding priorities, and (5) to align professional development and technical assistance for local practitioners.

National Implications:

  • This resource clearly points to the need for a focused research agenda at the national level related to college transitions for adult learners.  Without meaningful quantitative and qualitative research that more closely analyzes transition models and measures their effectiveness, state and local adult education programs are faced with using diminishing resources to fund transition initiatives that may or may not prove to be effective.  For example, the study suggests that:
    • Qualitative studies are needed that help describe and analyze practices related to intake, instruction, assessment, counseling, and other model components.
    • Quantitative studies of the models’ effectiveness are needed using agreed-upon definitions and criteria. Funding needs to be allocated for these longitudinal studies that track students coming out of transition programs with a control group of students who have similar academic and demographic characteristics but who did not receive additional preparation prior to enrollment. Given that ABE students are likely to take one course at a time, the longitudinal studies should be designed for tracking students for at least five years. To capture economic gains past graduation would require an even longer period of time.
    • Comparison studies are needed that focus on which kinds of interventions or additional services yield the most return for the dollar.  This would help policymakers and the field make wise use of the limited funds.
    • Research that focuses on discrete components and strategies might be most useful. For example: Would concentrating on reading strategies for college ultimately help students avoid “fatiguing out” in developmental education? How much money and time in developmental education courses can students save if they are dually enrolled while completing adult education?

This resource can also be used to help identify and justify the need for increased federal funding and coordination of national resources targeted for Title II of the Workforce Investment Act to serve nontraditional college students.

Resource Notice

This site includes links to information created by other public and private organizations. These links are provided for the user’s convenience. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this non-ED information. The inclusion of these links is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse views expressed, or products or services offered, on these non-ED sites.

Please note that privacy policies on non-ED sites may differ from ED’s privacy policy. When you visit, no personal information is collected unless you choose to provide that information to us. We do not give, share, sell, or transfer any personal information to a third party. We recommend that you read the privacy policy of non-ED websites that you visit. We invite you to read our privacy policy.