A Conversation with an Adult Education Director: Ensuring Student Success through Guided Pathways

Published may. 09, 2017

This is the first in a series of periodic conversations with members of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success.

At the winter 2017 meeting of Jobs for the Future’s Postsecondary State Policy Network, JFF Vice President Michael Lawrence Collins sat down with Jon Kerr, the Washington State Director for Basic Education for Adults, to discuss why community colleges should be more intentional in connecting adult basic education to guided pathways and how federal and state policy could help forge greater ties. Kerr is a member of the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success, which JFF convenes to promote evidenced-based, practitioner-informed policies for scaling guided pathways. 

Collins: At JFF’s winter meeting of the Postsecondary State Policy Network, you asked a question around basic skills. I think you were trying to situate adult education within guided pathways, and you seemed disappointed by the response that you got. I might be reading into that. But I believe that a number of panelists essentially said that they didn’t do basic skills at the community college level. I am curious what you think about their responses. 

Kerr: Oftentimes, basic skills are thought of as something that happens before a student enters a pathway. In fact, in the United States, only about 18 states deliver adult basic education programming through their community and technical colleges. In the other states, basic skills programs are overseen by the K-12 system or community-based organizations. Because of this, basic skills are often left out of the guided pathways conversation. To remedy that in Washington, we require all of our basic skills students, no matter what their level, to be on a college and career pathway.

Collins: A lot of times, when we talk about guided pathways, we really are talking about a certain kind of student, sometimes even a college-ready student, and I think sometimes even the developmental education pieces aren’t really in there. How do we begin to have a conversation where we need those foundational elements in that pathway?

Kerr: For starters. You can talk about the economic imperative. When we look at the workforce in Washington right now, three-fourths of new jobs require college credentials. By 2030, 60 percent of all jobs in Washington State will require a college credential. But our population is going to grow by only 10 percent during those same years. And for the next 20 years, if every high school graduate went into college, there would not be enough students to fill that gap, because our high school classes are getting smaller and smaller. So Washington has to fill that gap with our out-of-school youth and our working-age adults. And so the return on investment for finding a way to support these students as they upskill to the next level for employment is critical.

Collins: So how would you recommend we fill this gap? 

Kerr: We know that most people aren’t interested in just learning math. It turns out, however, that they can learn math very quickly if taught in the context of something they are passionate about. In Washington, we contextualize all basic skills instruction to the career or educational goals of students. So no longer do they learn just math, but they learn math for nursing or math is included within a science course that is needed to earn a high school credential. As the nation moves forward with guided pathways, I think there is an opportunity to incorporate basic skills within each meta major, contextualizing instruction to those fields, such as business or allied health.

Collins: You are essentially describing Washington’s I-BEST model, right?

Kerr: Yes. I-BEST, which stands for Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, puts students who might not be college ready into college-level career technical and academic transfer programs. This allows students without a high school diploma or GED to learn their basic skills at the same time they're learning critical workforce skills. Doing so prepares them for high-demand, living wage jobs while also earning credits and certificates toward a college degree. And because of this acceleration, students are no longer stuck in years of basic skills, ESL and GED classes. They're actually earning college credits, certificates, and degrees at the same time that they're learning those critical basic skills demanded by employers. I-BEST is team taught. One instructor delivers the academic or basic skills instruction, and the other instructor delivers the content area that those basic skills are contextualized to, like welding, manufacturing, early childhood education. We have adapted the I-BEST approach for a competency-based high school diploma program, an incumbent-worker training program, and an on-ramps program to I-BEST for lower-skilled students.

Collins: It seems like the I-BEST approach is a major lever for economic mobility for students entering community college with lower skills. Can you give me a sense of impact?

Kerr: Our I-BEST students are actually our highest-performing students in the community and technical college system here in Washington State in terms of generating performance points, which is pretty unbelievable when you think some people didn’t even expect them to succeed in college. When we also look at that data, and when we look at credits attempted, I-BEST students complete 88 percent of credits attempted. We've had about 4,000 to 5,000 I-BEST students annually. Over the last four years, basic skills students have earned more than 8,000 college certificates and degrees. They also earned the highest number of performance points or performance measures of any other students in the state’s funding formula system.

Collins: What if students want to come back to continue their education? Is there any opportunity for them to do that? 

Kerr: Probably the most rewarding thing when I think back as an instructor, dean, and I-BEST director, is when an I-BEST student came to me and said, “You know, I want to continue. I know I said I wanted to stop at this first certificate, but I never knew I was smart. I never knew I was college level. I'm a good college student.” And they continued.

Collins: Are there implications for stackable certificates?

Kerr: I-BEST is really all about stackable credentials. In Washington, when a student receives a two-year degree, they merely check a box and receive a high school diploma. So it really is about that comprehensive pathway, a pathway that can get them a diploma, that can get them stackable college certificates that lead to a degree, and a two-year degree that can transition them into a four-year university or higher-wage employment.

Collins: What policy issues would we need to address to be able to build these pathways from basic skills to two-year and four-year degrees?

Kerr: The challenge is how to help basic skills students pay for college when they don’t have a high school diploma or GED. In Washington, students pay 25 dollars in tuition for basic skills programs. And as soon as we can, we move them into their first quarter of I-BEST. We take a braided approach to covering their tuition, books, and fees for the first six credits. Depending on student eligibility, we may fund them through Work First funds, TANF funds, Basic Food Employment & Training (BFET) funds, worker retraining funds, or Title I WIOA funds. We’re also very fortunate to have in Washington the Opportunity Grant program, which covers the cost of books and tuition for students without a high school diploma or GED, to help them all the way through one year of college-level programming. Washington also has reenvisioned its state financial aid program so that these students, after earning those first six college credits, can receive state need-based grants. Starting in the second quarter, those students can also move onto Ability to Benefit, which is the Pell Grant for students without a high school diploma or GED. So students can be funded with an opportunity grant and then move onto federal financial aid with Ability to Benefit and the state need-based grant. That will take them all the way to a two-year degree.

Collins: That’s intriguing to me because it seems very forward-thinking that you allow financial aid to students who may not be ready. Were there political dynamics? Or how did that happen?

Kerr: Well I think we’re very lucky to have Representative Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney. She is a real champion for underrepresented populations and was the instigator behind I-BEST and also the Opportunity Grants. When we provided the evidence of how well I-BEST students were doing in the original pilot programs, it made a lot of sense for the return on investment to find a way to move more students into college programming.

Collins: Is support still strong for I-BEST and for the Opportunity Grants in the current political climate? 

Kerr: I would say it continues to get stronger. So far this year, we've seen a 24-percent increase in enrollment in I-BEST programs because they are performing so well. This year, with our legislature, we do have two legislative asks: first to increase FTE funding for I-BEST so that more FTE goes to I-BEST programming, and, second, to increase the Opportunity Grant.

Collins: It seems like the state policy context in Washington is very supportive. Do you think there are opportunities for federal policy to provide support?

Kerr: Well, the reinstatement of Ability to Benefit has been key. That really is the federal piece that can move our students, our underprepared students, or students without a high school diploma or GED, into our college-level programming. After a certain number of years of I-BEST, Ability to Benefit went away. But through the great support and work by Senator Patty Murray, along with many other people and organizations, including JFF, Ability to Benefit was reinstated. Even so, in order to receive full financial aid under Ability to Benefit, students have to test at a certain level or they have to earn their first six college-level credits. So, as we look at federal policy, the question is, is there something we can do to cover tuition for those first six credits for students who are in these highly supported pathways programs, like I-BEST, across the nation? When we think in policy terms about who qualifies for financial aid, why do we leave out basic skills students? Arguably, these students have greater need for quality instruction. But in reality, they are able to devote less time to school because they have to work. Yet we know how critical their upskilling is for meeting our nation’s workforce needs.

Collins: Thank you, Jon. This has been a terrific conversation. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts. We’re glad you're on the Trust to help us think about these issues and make these connections. 


About the Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success. After a decade of college completion reform, there is compelling evidence on what works to help the most students persist and succeed, especially those who are low-income or underserved. However, many unanswered questions and obstacles to scaling solutions remain. With the generous support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Jobs for the Future convenes the Policy Leadership Trust to support a robust exchange between state- and institutional-level leaders, national expert advisors, and JFF staff to examine the current evidence on postsecondary completion. The Policy Leadership Trust provides states and institutions with a blueprint for what postsecondary policies, structures, and systems the evidence suggests should be implemented.