24 What Makes a Strong Pathway?

The Workforce Strategy Center defines career pathways as “a series of connected education and training programs and support services that enable individuals to secure employment within a specific industry or occupational sector, and to advance over time to successively higher levels of education and employment in that sector.” Robust career pathways need to be designed to meet the needs of adult students, many of whom need to be able to work while they are in college. Pathways that include the core elements listed here, as well as stackable credentials and connections to employment, help increase students' likelihood of persistence and completion.

Core Pathway Elements

The following pathway elements were developed for states participating in the Accelerating Opportunity initiative. The criteria stem from JFF’s research, which pointed to a set of core elements that are essential to the success of the initiative. We highly recommend that states wishing to develop successful integrated program models commit to including these elements:

  • Explicit articulation of two or more educational pathways, linked to career pathways, that begin with adult basic education or ESL and continue to a one-year college-level certificate and beyond;
  • Evidence of strong local demand for the selected pathways, including the presence of careers in the pathway on the Workforce Investment Board demand list for the local area or other local data demonstrating robust demand;
  • Acceleration strategies, including contextualized learning and the use of hybrid course designs (online plus classroom-based instruction);
  • Evidence-based dual enrollment strategies, including paired courses and I-BEST and I-BEST-like approaches;
  • Comprehensive academic and social student supports (e.g., tutoring, child care, transportation, access to public benefits, subsidized jobs);
  • Achievement of marketable, stackable, credit-bearing certificates and degrees and college readiness, with an explicit goal of bypassing developmental education;
  • Award of some college-level professional-technical credits, which must be transcripted the quarter or semester in which they are earned; and
  • Partnerships with Workforce Investment Boards and employers.

Additional Considerations

Professional Development | Data | Partnerships | Costs & Financial Aid Considerations

Professional Development

Early in the process, start thinking about how faculty and staff will receive the ongoing training needed to implement a new way of delivering courses and programs. The instructors who deliver the courses, the support service staff who work with students, and college leaders will all need guidance and training in how to implement integrated pathways. In Accelerating Opportunity, high-quality professional development is a consistent set of constructs that leads to real systems and culture change. Professional development is about convening and sharing data and evidence, and doing everything possible to ensure the robust development of information and skills at the state and local levels.

Learn more about Professional Development


Data serve multiple purposes in designing and implementing an integrated pathway model. Data on the local and regional labor markets help in identifying occupations and industries to target in developing pathways. Data on student performance in Adult Basic Education and in college can help in identifying “loss points” at which students in the educational pipeline tend to drop out, as well as “tipping points” beyond which students tend to succeed in completing college courses and credentials. After implementation, college data can demonstrate the extent to which a program is supporting student completion. Data on student entry and performance in the labor market, although difficult to acquire, can offer insight into how well a program prepares students for the workforce.


Much of the success of Accelerating Opportunity depends on building a supportive network of partners and champions of change. Strong internal and external partnerships, leveraging the power of additional networks, improve the diversity of students engaged, strengthen systems alignment, add resources, and stretch the initiative's reach. Specifically, it is essential to engage employers throughout the initiative: their support can improve recruitment, job placement, program quality, and funding. It is also important to engage a diverse set of partners representing education, support services, and the publicly funded workforce system (the leaders and staff of the Workforce Investment Board and One-Stop Career Centers). And it is important to build deep and lasting institutional connections, including both internal partnerships within colleges and external partnerships with employers, Workforce Investment Boards, and community-based organizations.

Costs & Financial Aid Considerations

Colleges offer ABE courses at very low cost (or for free), but integrated pathways include tuition-bearing courses. Thus, cost can be a prohibitive factor for even the most motivated students. It is essential to devise strategies that help them find the resources they need for not only college-related expenses but also in many cases rent, transportation, child care, and other nonacademic needs. To do that, it is also essential to determine all program costs when developing the integrated pathway.