Advancing Equity in the Workforce with the 2Gen Approach

The United States workforce has an equity problem. As wealth inequality surges, a closer look at the workforce indicates that all workers are not starting in the same place. Even when individuals have access to education and training, structural inequality underpins barriers to employment and success. 

In their report Race-Explicit Strategies for Workforce Equity in Healthcare and IT, Race Forward argues that “Dominant messages about personal responsibility… fail to recognize the historical and intergenerational way in which multiple systems, including not only workforce, but also education, housing, criminal justice and others, have created an inherent set of disadvantages for people of color.”

Knowing this, it is no surprise that low-paying jobs are also unevenly distributed across U.S. demographics. The Center for American Progress reports in A Design for Workforce Equity that “women and people of color at all education levels overwhelmingly make up most of the workforce in lower-paying jobs.”

As the door remains shut for opportunities that will lead to success, much of this wealth inequality is inherited. These systems become only more entrenched with each generation.

What is the 2Gen approach?

While women and people of color are disproportionately low-income, they are also more likely to head a single parent household. There’s a great deal of work to be done on a systemic level to address these disparities, but a two-generation (2Gen) approach can help families navigate and confront educational barriers.

2Gen programs aim to initiate an intergenerational cycle of success by including both the parent and the child in the learning process. Research shows that it is more likely for a child to succeed in education and employment when their parent succeeds, and vice versa. 

These programs measure the success of both the parent and the child, both short-term and long-term, and collaborate with families to ensure a deep understanding of their goals and needs.

The 2Gen approach exists on a spectrum, ranging from child-focused to parent-focused programs. (The Aspen Institute)

In the 2016 report Making Tomorrow Better Together, the Aspen Institute outlines the intended outcomes of this approach as educational success, workplace development and economic gains, social capital, and health and wellness. For parents, that would mean that educators engage them as partners in their learning, attain tools to advance in their careers, and strengthen their own mental health and resilience. These outcomes intersect with those of their children: Children have a positive model for their education and career, develop the capacity to succeed later in life, and strengthen their relationships to their family.

While the structural barriers to workforce opportunities must be addressed, family-led and family-centered approaches can strengthen their support system while building valuable skills for parents and children.

Impact on workforce opportunities

Such an approach improves the economic security of children and their parents, as parents are able to increase their earnings in the workforce and children learn the foundational skills to set them up for success in the workforce later in life. 

Family literacy programming is defined within the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Title II Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (WIOA AEFLA) with a purpose of helping adults achieve foundational skills, acquire English language skills, learn about the education and development of their children, connect to schools and teachers, and engage in interactive literacy activities with their young or school-aged children. While AEFLA funds do not mandate  family literacy activities, many states do require their state match funds to include family literacy programming.

In postsecondary education, community colleges with dedicated family-friendly spaces for student parents can be both meaningful and tremendously helpful for single mother students. In addition to being a welcoming message, children benefit from the exposure to their mother’s college experience, helping them to understand their mother’s activities and inspiring their own aspirations.

In the National College Transition Network (NCTN) report No Matter What Obstacles Comes My Way, we learn how the Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center took advantage of a remarkable opportunity to build a dedicated space for their program for single mother students. With a generous donation, the LAVC Family Resource Center gained a dedicated building next to the college’s new child development center. This space allows the FRC to provide counseling, workshops, tutoring, and study rooms in a family-friendly area where parents can bring their children with them. 

This arrangement makes it much more feasible for a student parent to see a counselor, receive tutoring, or use on-campus computers, while their children benefit from playing with other children of all ages. 

The educational success of single mothers has the potential to reap intergenerational benefits, forging a path for economic mobility and success for their families. NCTN’s project College Success for Single Mothers, funded by ECMC Foundation, is working with eight community colleges to identify the needs of single mother students on campus and develop a plan to enhance their college success and prepare them for the workforce. 

With a deep understanding of the mutual success of single parents and their children, programs that account for the learning of both parents and children can start to break the cycle of poverty by strengthening the family as a whole. In this way, 2Gen strategies can set up long-term solutions for the systemic barriers to employment for women and people of color.

Reconnecting and Intersecting within Adult Education

The education and career path for adult learners is often nonlinear. Like a spiral staircase, you might find yourself coming back to the same point on a circle — to the same organization, or to the same people — but on a different plane than before. Similarly, as adult educators, we can never predict where our paths will intertwine with learners’ paths over time.

In August, Boston Globe correspondent Adam Sennott highlighted seven single mothers who graduated college through the Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit that offers opportunities and tools for young mothers’ successful transition to higher education. One of the most valuable elements of the program is the collective empowerment found among the women in the program. He spoke with one mother, Lizeth Montenegro, 29, who said this of her time at Endicott College:

“It was very useful, because having all those moms in the class with me, we [were] able to bounce ideas off each other,” Montenegro said. “And if somebody didn’t know something, another mother might know something and we [would] help each other out.

“And I think that was the whole idea of having us all in that same class,” Montenegro said, “Even though we’re there learning, to get our education, we’re also there to give each other support and help each other out.”

Underscoring the spiral of connections, Adam Sennott himself is a graduate of a program to prepare adult learners to transition to college at the Cambridge Community Learning Center’s (CLC) Bridge Program. This program was part of the cluster of World Education’s 25 ABE-to-college transition programs that launched the National College Transition Network (NCTN). This demonstration project, funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, set the stage for countless other initiatives that would end up serving students much like himself, and much like his interviewees in his recent Globe article.

Today, NCTN is in its first year of College Success for Single Mothers, a three-year project funded by ECMC Foundation. The project is assisting eight community colleges to identify the needs of single mother students on campus and develop and expand key practices and services to enhance their success in college and careers. 

With a powerful motivation to improve the lives of their families and set a positive example for their children, many single mothers pursue education and training that will lead to better-paying work and a meaningful career.

Over and over again, we find ourselves inspired by adult learners like Adam and the parenting students of Jeremiah Program and the dedicated educators we help them on their paths. Adam’s piece reminds us of the ways in which we keep returning to this powerful community of adult learners and educators.

4 Big Ideas from the 2019 NCTN Conference

One question that drives our work is, “Can we make adult education accessible, affordable, and open doors to opportunities?” The answer comes in many forms from many different voices. After three days at the 2019 National College Transition Network Conference, one thing is clear: enabling adult learners with college and career readiness requires all hands on deck. 

NCTN’s 2019 convening of administrators and teachers, coaches and advisors, and anyone invested in adult learner pathways, offered space to consider how to best serve adult learners across the many challenges they may face. Leveraging the combined expertise of the National College Transition Network  and the EdTech Center @ World Education, the conference showcased innovative, tech-enabled approaches to preparing adult learners for the digital world. In case you weren’t able to join us, here are some of the big ideas from the 2019 gathering.

Understand your students.

It’s no secret: Transitions cause stress. But transitions look different for everyone–whether it’s moving cities, not getting the promotion you expected, or having a child. Speaker Jim Peacock, Peak Careers Consulting, addressed transitions using Schlossberg’s Transition Theory, and encouraged conference-goers to identify some of the barriers that students face.

Common barriers included lack of confidence, family, access to transportation, and homelessness, but there are many more. To understand the ways in which a student might feel stuck, Peacock recommends asking critical questions that illuminate the major factors at work in the student’s life that foster or impede their progress in life. In short: What do you have now, and what do you need to get to where you want to go? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Working through this process with students, or empowering them to do so on their own, will help them feel equipped to deal with the stress of transitions.

Student speaker Afet Genderovskiy opened up about her own learning journey with one of her teachers, Mina Reddy. She reminds us that above all else, students wish to be understood:

“The most important thing is being patient. My English is not that advanced. Sometimes I make mistakes. We’re looking for support and understanding that English is not our first language.”

Afet Genderovskiy and Mina Reddy


Empower lifelong learning.

Essential interpersonal, intrapersonal, and cognitive problem-solving skills enable us to be resilient, agile, and lifelong learners at work, home, and in our communities in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world. 

Michelle Weise, Senior VP of Workforce Strategies at the Strada Institute for the Future of Work, stressed that it’s insufficient to think of hard and soft skills (human skills) as a simple dichotomy because both are important to keep us secure in the future of work. But deliberate attention and continued practice of human skills is critical, because although they are human, they are not innage. These skills will begin to close the gap between employers and job-seeking students.

The good news is that adults can continue to learn, improve, and enhance human skills. As Heather McGowan, Future-of-work Strategist, suggests, we need to think about learning as an investment in the future to close the skills gap.

NCTN is developing a Personal and Workplace Success Skills library to feature resources to support the development and application of critical thinking, collaboration, self-awareness, communication, resilience, digital fluency, and more. 

Partnerships are essential.

With a gathering of leaders from across the adult education space, it becomes clear that individuals and institutions must work together across sectors. Policy is one of many areas for partnership and innovation in adult education, as evidenced by strong advocacy efforts and federal attention to supporting and developing policy to support the education and career advancement of adult learners. 

Such is the case for Ability to Benefit (ATB), the federal provision that enables adult learners without a high school diploma to qualify for federal financial aid begin postsecondary education in federally approved career pathways programs while completing a high school equivalency  credential.The policy works as a dual enrollment mechanism for adult college students to be able to pull down federal financial aid to fund their education. In her session, Judy Mortrude described NCTN’s technical assistance to state systems to scale and sustain ATB.

First why, then how.

Surrounded by edtech researchers and professionals, the paths you can take to digitally empower adult learners seem endless. World Education’s Jen Vanek urges us to first consider why we need edtech, and then consider how its implementation will lead to success.

In the case of blended learning, teachers can facilitate learning circles to bridge technology and face to face instruction. World Education, Inc. developed English Now! Learning Circles to be free, open to ESOL students of all levels, and encourage learners to lead. In this spirit, students are encouraged to engage with one another as they build their skills in English language and digital literacy.

Speaker Jamie Harris emphasized the need for digital literacy skills in bridging the gap for students in transition, whether it’s into postsecondary education or a career. Digital skills are necessary for seeking, applying for, and getting a job, but also for educational, civic, and health care advances.

It’s nearly impossible to teach a group of learners without room for differentiation, and this approach provides an opportunity to differentiate instruction. This approach also allows for students to have some control of the time, place, and pace of their own learning.

In short, a user-centered, blended approach that can adapt to students’ own unique challenges will help them get the most of their education. 

In approaching the interconnected challenges that face adult learners, we must have a hand on levers across disciplines and sectors. 

From tutors to teachers, state administrators to practitioners, conference-goers at NCTN are working together to understand students’ needs, and using combined efforts to build 21st century skills and create ladders of opportunity for adult learners.