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Students at Delgado Community College in Louisiana participating in the statewide Work Ready U program.
Photo: Delgado Community College
Louisiana has a huge problem with dropouts. There are nearly 600,000 adults in the state who lack a high school diploma, and about 44 percent of them are unemployed.
That’s putting a huge strain on the state’s social services and making it difficult to attract new economic development. Meanwhile, the state has employers unable to find enough qualified workers.
The Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s (LCTCS) Work Ready U aims to change that equation. The program, launched in 2010, moved adult basic education (ABE)—including GED courses—from high schools to community colleges, while also offering students additional support and opportunities for postsecondary education.
“The concept was pretty straightforward,” said LCTCS Chancellor Joe May. Louisiana shifted the focus of basic adult education from high school dropouts to unemployed or underemployed adults. “We wanted to help adults who really needed a GED get into the workforce,” he said.
“We had to change our mindset about basic adult education. The goal is not just to help people get their GED, but to get people ready for work” with an industry-recognized credential, added Delgado Community College (DCC) Chancellor Monty Sullivan.
Work Ready U students are training for a variety of jobs, such as nursing assistants, phlebotomists, pharmacy technicians and welders. Most are in the construction trades or healthcare.
There is still rebuilding going on in Louisiana after Katrina; overnight that storm created a demand for 29,000 construction workers, May noted. But many people without a high school diploma are stuck in unskilled, unreliable construction work. The goal of Work Ready U is to train them for industry-recognized credentials so they will qualify for higher-paying jobs in industries looking for workers.
“If your college has an open-admissions policy and someone shows up with no high school diploma and completes development education, why would we not want to help them get a GED? We need to remove the policy barriers to make this as easy as possible,” Sullivan said.
The program is also aimed at helping students earn certifications of work readiness, find a job paying sustainable wages and continue their education. Ultimately, the hope is that once these students realize they can succeed in a college environment, they will pursue an associate degree.
It’s too early to say how many of the Work Ready U students at DCC will eventually earn degrees, Sullivan said, but, he predicted: “Once they see what’s possible, that’s when a light bulb goes off in their heads. They will be back.”
A national model?
DCC is also one of 10 Louisiana community colleges in Jobs for the Future’s Accelerating Opportunity program, in which Work Ready U students are co-enrolled in technical career programs and foundational and basic skills programs, as well as GED courses.
States focus on revamping ABE
That program, which started last year, aims to have 3,600 students across the 10 colleges earn credentials by the end of the academic year, said Barbara Endel, national project director for Accelerating Opportunity. Louisiana received a $1.8-million grant from the Kellogg Foundation to implement Accelerating Opportunity.
“We really believe the vision for Work Ready U is a terrific model for other states to look at to give students a shot at sustainable jobs,” Endel said. “There is no reason why a student should need a GED before they start on a career pathway.”
Since DCC started focusing on ABE in 2006, it’s seen a dramatic increase in students in those programs, from 500 students in 2007-08 to 2,500 this year, Sullivan said.
Total enrollment at DCC has grown from 12,000 in 2005 to 20,000 in 2012. With demand outpacing capacity, Sullivan is working with community organizations such as the Urban League to provide classroom space. And because the college can’t afford all the full-time faculty it needs, more than 60 percent of Work Ready U courses are taught by adjuncts.
Restoring ATB eligibility is among AACC's priorities
The program ran into a hurdle last year when Congress changed eligibility for Pell grants by nixing a provision that allowed high school dropouts to receive the grant if they could pass an “ability-to-benefit” test. Sullivan said DCC found some ways to overcome that by providing tuition assistance to Work Ready U students with funding from foundations and other programs.
When ABE was administered by the K-12 education system, it was run on an “open-entry, open-exit approach,” May said. That didn’t work so well with people who had dropped out of school, so there were high attrition rates.
“Most of the people we see have not been successful previously in any education setting,” he said. “These folks required more structure, not less.”
So Work Ready U programs limit the number of people who come in at any one time and provide extra counseling and social services. Also, switching GED courses to community colleges allowed for more flexible scheduling, including evening hours, which are more convenient for adults with families and jobs.
At DCC, the Work Ready U students are grouped together in a cohort for some classes. In other courses they are mixed in with other students.
“Pushing someone to get a GED requires a ton of effort, particularly for adults with families,” Sullivan said. It’s worth it, though, because “success is contagious,” he said. If a high school dropout goes back to school and earns some credentials resulting in a better-paying job, his or her peers will take note.
That’s not all, Sullivan noted: “People who’ve been through the program and completed their GED have a much better success rate in postsecondary education.”
The number of Work Ready U students enrolling in credit-bearing courses is increasing at DCC, and their average success rate in college—in terms of retention from semester to semester—is higher than that of regular students.
The tighter structure and additional counseling support are crucial, but even more important, students "are much more motivated, because they see a straight line between where they are now and where they want to go,” Sullivan said. “They catch fire when they understand what an education means for them.”
While the program has been successful in a short time, the true results will be seen five or 10 years from now, he said.
“That’s when you’ll see people who’ve been through the program working, being productive, paying taxes and contributing to their communities,” Sullivan said.
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges