Equitable Career Pathways and Workforce Development Initiatives: Are We Truly Serving Learners from Low-Income Backgrounds?

Social mobility, which refers to an individual’s capacity to improve their finances, social status, and overall well-being,[1] remains one of the greatest reasons individuals attend postsecondary institutions. Learners often seek a credential to be more competitive in the marketplace to secure and increase their economic and social stability, and this is not surprising, given that postsecondary credentials provide individuals with a higher chance to increase their economic and social position. Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that “72 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education and training in 2031.” [2]  Most of those jobs are expected to require a 4-year degree.

Because of this deep connection between postsecondary credentials and social mobility, it is no wonder that philanthropic organizations have been heavily investing in supporting career pathways and workforce development initiatives aimed at increasing social mobility among individuals attending postsecondary institutions. Career pathways and workforce development initiatives have been at the center of these organizations’ funding strategy, as seen with Strada’s Work-Based Learning pillar[3], Ascendum’s Streamline Key Learner Transition focus area[4], and Gates’ Pathways focus.[5] There is an undeniable need for this work.

Amid these worthwhile efforts, however, is a consistent need for both funders and partnering organizations to stay vigilant regarding how their career pathways and workforce development efforts explicitly benefit students from low-income backgrounds. Otherwise, this work risks having their greatest impact on those who require social mobility the most – students from low-income backgrounds. Elevating low-income students is where this work can have the greatest impact, given that these profiles of learners have the most to gain compared to learners from lower- and upper-middle-class backgrounds. This is not to say that learners from middle-class backgrounds will not benefit from career pathways and workforce development initiatives, but that their gains pale compared to the leaps and bounds that could be made among learners from low-income backgrounds.

The Pell Institute occasional publishes papers, policy briefs and an electronic newsletter that analyses equal educational opportunities for low-income and first-generation students and students with disabilities.
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Accordingly, there are three key areas in the postsecondary education journey where learners from low-income backgrounds can be neglected or overlooked during career pathway and workforce development initiatives that we should continuously be mindful of despite ever-present discourse– access and enrollment, retention and persistence, and graduation and success. Access and enrollment refer to who can enter and participate in postsecondary institutions. Retention refers to who stays within an institution and at what level of engagement. Success is about who graduates from a postsecondary institution and their employment prospects. Each stage is pertinent to the success or failure of career pathways and workforce development initiatives. Neglecting or overlooking how these areas prompts the question: are those who stand to gain the most receiving the support they need?

We must stay vigilant regarding who can access a potential or current pathway or workforce development initiative. For example, regardless of the number of students attending postsecondary institutions, low-income students remain at the bottom regarding postsecondary enrollment. Data from 2020 demonstrates a gap of 26 percentage points between the percentage of high school graduates from the highest income quartile who attend college (85%) and those from the lowest income quartile (59%)[6]. And this gap has remained relatively the same since the 1990s with slight differences since the 1970s. This gap reflects a structural reality within US postsecondary education. Although workforce development and career pathways initiatives aim to increase enrollment and success rates among college and university students from the lowest-income quartiles, the reality has not aligned with this aspiration. This suggests a systemic issue rather than deficiencies in individual work ethic. This trend affects entire segments of our society.  Therefore, when constructing career pathways and workforce development initiatives, it’s crucial to understand that low-income students have historically faced challenges in accessing these opportunities. The extent of these challenges varies depending on specific institutional contexts.

 Even after gaining access, it’s critical to remain attentive to the presence or absence of low-income students by considering their retention within postsecondary institutions. Low-income students are the most susceptible to dropping out or pausing their postsecondary education. For example, among students from low-income backgrounds who go on to attend a postsecondary institution, their retention is worse than that of students from higher-income backgrounds. For example, college students (2018 cohort) who graduated from low-income high schools had worse retention rates (79%) than college students from higher-income high schools (88%).[7] [These results from several factors that low-income students face that their higher-income peers do not, such as a lack of college preparation. For example, in the state of Illinois in 2019, a majority of low-income students, 70%, did not enroll in AP or dual credit courses, putting them at a greater disadvantage for college readiness than students from higher-income backgrounds. [8] Accordingly, whether low-income students stay within an institution can, directly and/or indirectly, impact whether a particular career pathway or workforce development initiative properly is relevant and serves them. This is why we must be sensitive to retention data—to contextualize these initiatives’ potential and actual impact.

Lastly, if a postsecondary institution already struggles to graduate students from low-income backgrounds, then that will undoubtedly affect the promise of any career or workforce initiative. Subsequently, we must remember that students from the lowest income quartiles do not graduate with postsecondary education credentials at any rate that would reflect the espoused meritocratic rhetoric and discourse of social mobility that undergirds our nation.  Students from the two lowest-income quartiles are estimated to only account for 29% of college degrees earned in 2020 compared to students from the two highest-income quartiles (70%).[9] Because postsecondary credentials play a crucial role in students’ social mobility, very little about our postsecondary education system indicates that such social mobility among low-income students is a priority. Instead, it is more of a privilege.  

Given this troubling data about students from low-income backgrounds across access, retention, and success, there needs to be even greater research and policy work that explicitly focuses on how career pathway and development initiatives intersect with college enrollment, retention, and graduate/success rates of low-income students. This emphasis is the difference between whether career pathways and workforce initiatives serve those who need social mobility the most or not. At the Pell Institute, I am proud we are working with this level of intentionality to bring light to building more robust career pathways for low-income students within postsecondary institutions. Some of our current research in this area examines the interaction between TRIO programs, which serve low-income students, and their collaboration with campus career centers to offer career support toward greater retention, graduation, and post-college success. We focus on understanding the essential relationships between TRIO and career center staff to effectively provide career services to low-income students.

            As funders and grant recipients continue to build and take on new career pathways and workforce development initiatives with hopefulness and enthusiasm, let’s not assume that low-income students will be swept into these initiatives and experience success by default. We must be intentional and mindful that low-income students’ access, retention, and success within a space will affect the impact and outcomes of a career pathway or workforce initiative. With this perspective and care, we can better assess the strengths and weaknesses of different initiatives to understand if those who need social mobility the most are being served.

[1] https://www.oecd.org/stories/social-mobility/

[2] https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/projections2031/#resources, page 5

[3] https://stradaeducation.org/work-based-learning/

[4] https://www.ascendiumphilanthropy.org/our-grantmaking/streamline-key-learner-transitions/

[5] https://www.gatesfoundation.org/our-work/programs/us-program/pathways

[6] https://coenet.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2022_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf (page 61)

[7] https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2021_HSBenchmarksReport.pdf (page 8).

[8] https://ibhestrategicplan.ibhe.org/SP_Equity_Gaps_Low-income_Students.html

[9] https://coenet.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2022_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf (Page 196)

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