Bridge programs are growing in number and influence across the country, helping students to close learning gaps or to become ready for the next level of education or to enter the job market. While their numbers are growing — through colleges and universities, post-secondary schools, technical schools, and workforce readiness programs — because they are offered by multiple agencies and their efforts are not always coordinated, there is no central data to show how many there are or what kind of influence they exert.
However, a report released last month by the Workforce Strategy Center has shed some light on the impact these programs have been making. The report surveyed 515 programs incorporating job-training efforts in 345 communities around the country.
“Bridge programs are suitable for adults who have reading and mathematics skills at or below the ninth-grade level,” the report explains. “These individuals may or may not have a high school diploma or GED. Most will have been out of school for a significant amount of time and are not positioned to succeed in postsecondary
education and training programs. Bridge programs are housed in community colleges, local school districts, or at workforce agencies or community-based organizations. Their services take the form of GED preparation,
English as a Second Language programs, developmental education, or Workforce Investment Act (WIA)-supported career-preparation programs.”
In its “Bridge program snapshot,” the survey reported that:
- 57 percent of adults enrolled in bridge programs had educational skills below the 10th-grade level, and 19 percent had skills below the 6th-grade level.
- 75 percent of bridge programs surveyed target allied health, with other programs serving those interested in administrative and office technologies, construction, information technology, manufacturing, and energy.
- 67 percent of programs indicated that their participants are likely to enroll in further education within six months of completing the programl; 50 percent said that their participants were eligible to participate in a degree-track program; and 39 percent said that their participants had earned some college credit through the program.
Meeting a Need
The report tied together the work that bridge programs are conducting with the changing needs of the U.S. economy in the coming years, in response to the current economic crisis and the changing market.
Currently, “the unemployment rate for individuals with less than a high school education is 15 percent. For people with an Associate’s Degree, it is seven percent,” the report notes.
In the coming years, those statistics may be more grim.
According to the report, “some predict that by 2018, two-thirds of the jobs in the American economy will require postsecondary credentialing. At the same time, according to the National Commission on Adult Literacy, 80-90 million adult workers have low basic skills and are not prepared for 21st-century jobs—they lack a high school degree or its equivalent.”
This number of low-skilled and under-educated workers represents a significant percentage of the workforce — the report says that “almost one-half of our workforce in 2030 will be composed of today’s working adults” — and finding a way to educate them so that they have the skills to be future economic demands is crucial not only to their individual development, but also to the health of the U.S. economy and to the nation’s ability to remain competitive.
“Over the last decade, bridge programs have emerged and are often the first step on the way to career-path employment in high demand, middle- and high-skill occupations,” the report says.
One way that these bridge programs are meeting needs in ways that traditional education is not is to “offer instruction at times and places convenient to working adults, offer a ‘learning-by-doing’ format and allow students to work at their own pace. Most programs are cohort-based, allowing students to progress through their classes together. The average class size is between 10 and 19 students; the average program length is 20 weeks.”
A Question of Deficits
Some of the findings in the report certainly beg the question of how post-secondary schools are failing students. Why do we have so many adults who do not have a college education or even a high-school education? If it is so successful, why is the common structure of these bridge programs — smaller class sizes, cooperative learning, more individualized instruction — not being used in the traditional classroom?
Steve Peha, the president of Teaching That Makes Sense, wrote a commentary in response to a story about the study on National Journal and argued that “Bridge programs are a 21st-century euphemism for boondoggles that try to make up for education systems that failed kids while they were in school.”
He goes on to argue that “we don’t need ‘bridge’ programs, we need education that actually educates people to the point where ‘bridging’ is unnecessary…. The mere fact of these programs’ existence means that we are failing. And the fact that we are apparently growing more of these programs suggests that we are planning to fail even more in the future. WHY NOT JUST TRY LEARNING?”
Peha identifies the problem as a lack of adequate preparation in post-secondary schools — that students are not learning basic academic knowledge, that they are not prepared to study in college, and that they are not being taught real-world skills that will serve them in the job search and in employment.
He describes the problem as “weak curriculum that doesn’t match the world it purports to describe; weak teaching that doesn’t bring real world knowledge and skills to students; phony assessment that says people are ‘proficient’ at something but can’t define what proficiency is in meaningful real-world terms; data-driven decision-making with data so bad we drive ourselves crazy making decisions with it.”
“My concern is that if we create new levels of ancillary support systems, our main system will do less and less each year,” Peha says. “In a decade or two, kids will just mark time until they’re old enough to drop out, and then head for a ‘bridge’ program.”
Peha’s argument assumes much about the reasons that bring people to bridge programs, and where those assumptions are true, I agree with his conclusions. If the reason people must turn to bridge programs is because they are not adequately educated in the K-12 system — students dropping out because they can’t handle the academic pressures because they never learned to read, students not being able to succeed in college-level courses because they were never held to proficiency standards and were passed along through the system without adequate skills — then bridge programs are not the solution, but rather a balm.
However, the problem is not as simple as that. Students arrive at bridge programs for a number of reasons, and there is more than one type of bridge program.
Bridge programs such as Upward Bound follows disadvantaged students through the educational system and provides them the support needed to make it through to a college education. Students with little or no family support and few resources are more likely to perform poorly academically and to eventually drop out of school. Programs that work to help these students while they are still in school help to prevent gaps in education later.
When students do not participate in these programs, and they later drop out, bridge programs can help them complete their high-school education and gain the skills needed to get a necessary higher degree.
Focus Adolescent Services identifies several risk factors for students who drop out of high school:
- External locus of control (i.e., being in agreement with others’ perceptions — believed or actual — of their individual ability, worth, or value)
- Low self-esteem
- At least one disability (e.g., ADHD, learning disabilities)
- Poor peer support
- Depression or other emotional problems
- Early sexual activity or promiscuity
- Substance abuse
- Having a child
- Must work to help support the family
- Single-parent home
- Poor parent-child relationships
- Family in poverty
- Neither parent nor guardian is employed
- Primary language of the family is not English
- A sibling has dropped out of school
- Parent(s) did not graduate from high school
Even a cursory glance at this glance makes it clear that the reasons students drop out of high school are complex and deep-rooted and are not always the cause of failings by the school system. Though the school system can address some of these problems by providing additional support through counselors and tutors, many of the problems are beyond the realm of school counselors and teachers. A more wide-spread effort is required that includes the efforts of government services and mental-health-care providers that treats the problem holistically — at the family, economic AND academic level.
For the students who disengage from the educational system for these reasons, bridge programs play a valuable role in re-capturing these students and giving them a second chance at attaining a valuable education.
Other bridge programs provide training for those who have decided to change careers or to change paths of study — a valuable service for those who have had to navigate life changes or even just a change of decision.
Some programs provide services for those who need help navigating the job search and the market. Though colleges and universities typically have career services, job training and office etiquette is not typically a part of the curriculum. An argument can be made for including a course on practical job skills — writing resumes and cover letters, learning how to interview, office politics, etc. — but it should not be the primary focus of the curriculum. Knowing the substance of the work is far more important than knowing how to manage co-workers, and there are enough counseling services and other programs to provide training on these skills.
The Future of Bridge Programs
The report made several recommendations for bridge programs based on the data collected.
“The following three activities are recommended: 1. Build a bridge program community of practice to share results and promote promising practice. 2. Implement a bridge program demonstration project that is designed to meet the national standards and evaluate the results. 3. Form a Bridge Program Policy Commission to review policy and practice at the federal, state and local levels and establish national bridge program standards.”
With the valuable work that bridge programs are doing, it is important to streamline their efforts in some way, allowing for collaboration and accountability. Creating national standards and a central agency to review and monitor these programs would ensure that they have a greater impact.
This comment comes from Julian L. Alssid, the Executive Director of the Workforce Strategy Center, whose study about the types of programs that help adults, primarily, gain the remedial skills they need to get ready for college courses or technical training is the subject of today’s Education Blog question.
What our survey, the BRT program, and a number of other undertakings are showing is that education in many ways needs, and is starting to undergo, a reboot.
Let’s be clear, this is not to say that education as we have understood it on the K-graduate level is bad, but rather, while society, economy, and technology have changed, fundamentally our educational system has not kept up.
What is needed is new forms of education, new methods of delivery, and new ideas that will change education as much as the web has changed how we communicate.
Take college. Until as little a 20 years ago, college could be a “right of passage,” and if you missed that boat you were most likely excluded from the highest levels of the American promise. No more. Today college has to be more relevant to future careers and more accessible to everybody.
But here is the good news, as our survey and other programs show, many in business and educators have realized they need to work together to make education more relevant. Not dummed down. More relevant. And as America has done many times, we can close our education gap and build the next stage of this story of our country through what we have always done better than anybody else. Innovate.