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High Expectations, High Support: A Closer Look at College Completion Programs

May 20, 2018


students workingLow-income adults pursuing postsecondary credentials to qualify for better-paying jobs are often confronted with complex challenges. These can include being underprepared academically for their selected programs, a lack of social support, the direct costs of school (tuition, books, fees, and often tools or uniforms) and other, indirect expenses, such as child care, transportation and the need to work reduced hours—and therefore earnings—to make time for class and homework. In response, states, regions across the country, and individual institutions have created career pathways programs and other college access and completion strategies to address these challenges. Experimental evidence from the evaluations of three such initiatives found that they resulted in improved outcomes for their participants, including higher college completionrates.

Three Models of High-Support, High-Expectation Programs

Most career pathways programs share elements, including assessment, innovative instructional approaches, academic and non-academic supports, as well as connections to enrollment. These elements are intended to create supports that help non-traditional students enroll and stay in school, so they can earn in-demand occupational credentials. Here, I focus on three intensive, multi-component programs that focus on low-income populations: Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA), Project QUEST, and Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). These programs offer high levels of contact with--and support of--their students. Each of these three programs provides high levels of per-student funding to support college-related costs such as tuition and books, counseling (academic and non-academic), other services, such as support for transportation. In return, participants are required to maintain full-time college enrollment and attend regular counseling sessions. Failure to do either results in dismissal from the program. All three programs provide college preparation classes if needed and are intended to result in associate degrees or for VIDA and Project QUEST, year-long certificates. Of course, when contemplating multiple-component, intensive, lengthy programs, it’s important to understand whether this type of program can produce results for the low-income adults they serve.


Located in Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley, VIDA is one of nine career pathway programs participating in the Administration for Children and Families-funded Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) evaluation. In addition to the high expectations and high-support approach described above, a key feature of VIDA is that it only supports training for careers that are in demand locally and pay a living wage. About three-quarters of participants enroll in nursing or allied health associate degree or credential programs; the remainder enroll in a variety of information technology, business, manufacturing, and education or social service programs.
Using a random assignment methodology, Abt’s impact study of VIDA found that, after two years, VIDA participants earned, on average, 5.6 more college credits than control group members. VIDA also increased the participants’ rate of earning certificates and degrees by 8.3 percentage points compared to the control group. Both results were significant at the 1-percent level, which gives researchers high confidence that VIDA is responsible for these improved participant outcomes. VIDA also significantly increased full-time college enrollment by 11 percentage points. Future reports will examine whether these positive education effects translate into gains in employment and earnings, and will analyze the program’s costs and benefits.

Project QUEST

Project QUEST places a strong emphasis on obtaining the certifications necessary to enter in-demand health care occupations, and focuses less on accumulating college credits than its sibling program, VIDA, or ASAP do. Long-term results for Project QUEST also offer some basis for optimism about the effectiveness of career pathway programs. Six years after entering the study, program participants were a remarkable 26.4 percentage points more likely to earn certifications and degrees than the control group, a difference that was significant at the 1-percent level. Also, participant salaries were $5,080 higher than among control group members; this difference was significant at the 5-percent level and is likely to be permanent, since it reflects entry into higher-paid occupations.


ASAP couples mandatory full-time attendance and counseling with substantial financial supports for tuition, books, and related costs. While VIDA and Project QUEST focus on preparation for in-demand occupations and family-sustaining wages, ASAP focuses on the attainment of associate degrees, which may be occupational or academic in focus. ASAP also serves a younger population compared to the other two programs, which serve students primarily in their mid-20s to early 30s. ASAP’s participants are mostly Hispanic and African-American, with some Caucasians and Asians as well, while VIDA and Project QUEST serve a primarily Hispanic population.
ASAP’s two-year impacts are comparable to those of VIDA’s. ASAP’s participants earned 6.4 additional college credits, and the program increased attainment of credentials by 6 percentage points. Three-year impacts for ASAP showed the rate at which students received associate degrees doubled. All of these two- and three-year impacts for ASAP were significant at the 1-percent level.

Where Can We Go From Here?

These experimental results are encouraging for those who see the potential for career pathways programs to expand opportunity for low-income Americans by helping them obtain the training and credentials they need to obtain family-sustaining jobs. The commitment required of participants in each program, as well as the costs, may give pause to policymakers considering replicating these efforts in their communities. There is, however, reason to think that the total cost per graduate for these programs may be substantially lower than costs of other “business-as-usual” programs, thanks to the higher graduation rates typically resulting from career pathway programs. Indeed, a study of ASAP’s cost-effectiveness came to precisely this conclusion.
As much research shows, better-trained workers contribute more to their communities, pay more taxes, are less likely to need governmental assistance, and tend to be healthier and happier than those without access to the training provided by programs like VIDA, ASAP, and Project QUEST. Given this broad range of potential benefits, policymakers would be well served to give this evidence on career pathways programs thoughtful consideration.

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