Helping Low-Income Adults Achieve College Success: Analysis of Career Pathways Program Study Participants

Publication Date
August 11, 2016

Ed note: This post originally appeared in the ACF Family Room Blog. View the post here.

Having a college degree is a key factor in long-term economic stability. Research consistently shows that individuals with a college degree have higher earnings than those without. Yet many low-income people neither enroll nor complete their education. How can we help them achieve college success?

The Pathways to Advancing Careers and Education study focuses on nine career pathways programs including more than 9,000 low-income youth and adults. To look at risk factors that prevent low-income students from achieving college success, researchers used data on individuals in the study’s control group (those not eligible to receive special program services). The goal was to understand what factors, measured when they enrolled in the study, predicted their college persistence and success 18 months later.

The report, Risk Factors for College Success: Insights from Adults in Nine Career Pathways Programs, identifies several major themes.

Prior Educational Experiences Matter

Having better grades in high school predicted enrolling in college, persisting once in college, and earning credentials. Similarly, individuals who reported higher levels of academic discipline (maintaining focus on tasks) and commitment (motivation to complete training) were more likely to enroll in college and earn credentials than those reporting lower levels of either.

Interestingly, those with less than one year of prior college credit were less likely to earn a credential than those with no college credit. It seems that short spells of prior college enrollment may be an indicator of challenges affecting college persistence.

Devoting Time to Full-Time Education is Important

Individuals who expected to work a higher number of hours while in school were less likely to enroll in college and to earn credentials when they did enroll. Also, those who expected to enroll in school part-time were less likely to enroll and persist when they did enroll. The analysis found that time is at least as influential as money on the likelihood of enrolling and persisting.

Economic and Relationship Hardships Take a Toll

The study asked participants about their family and economic well-being, including if and what types of public assistance they receive.

After controlling for various background characteristics, including income, participants who received food assistance were less likely than those who reported that they did not receive assistance to:

  • enroll in school
  • remain enrolled in school
  • earn credentials

These patterns were more prominent among those who reported receiving TANF when they began participating in the study.

We also found that unmarried parents were less likely to complete college and earn credentials than married parents and individuals without children (married or unmarried). This suggests that unmarried parents experience greater challenges to college success.

These findings show that past experiences, current circumstances, and self-reported goals and commitment can predict college enrollment, persistence, and success. Programs looking to help low-income adults succeed in college can draw on these lessons to tailor supports that meet the needs of this population.

Learn more about the Pathways to Advancing Careers and Education study.

By Nicole Constance, Social Science Research Analyst & Erica Zielewski, Senior Social Science Research Analyst, OPRE

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