Backpacks to Briefcases: Taking the Leap to College

For many high school students, taking the step from high school to college is a natural one. But most adult education students face barriers that make the step feel more like a leap: not knowing what program is a good fit, being unaware of critical financial aid or scholarship information, or missing the personal success skills to navigate the admissions process. With guidance and support, all students can make the step from GED and other high school equivalency programs to college without fear of falling.

A survey of 65 students in Lexington, North Carolina showed that most didn’t know about certificate program options at their community college, nor its available support services. While students had the desire to attend college to enhance their job opportunities, few knew how to take the leap.

Backpacks to Briefcases

In response to the survey findings, Lexington’s Davidson County Community College Basic Skills program set forth a new initiative: Backpacks to Briefcases.

Backpacks to Briefcases serves 18-24 year olds who are within 6-8 months of graduating with a GED or adult high school diploma and have a consistently good attendance record and a commitment to improvement. Throughout a three-part, three-week program, students are guided through college and career planning with an emphasis on self-assessment, skill-building, and collaboration.

This structure is designed to build a student’s career readiness through contextualized curriculum, symbolized by two meaningful gifts and the program’s namesake. Upon entering the program, students receive a backpack that they can carry with them through their program journey and college experience. After completing the program and enrolling in college, students receive a briefcase and career care package to take them beyond college and through their careers.

Self-developed, contextualized curriculum connects students more quickly to college certification programs and increased students’ motivation to pursue postsecondary education. In 2008, 76 students participated. Of these, 58 students (76%) completed the program and 45 enrolled in postsecondary education or training. In 2009, 42 students participated. Of these, 34 students (81%) transitioned to college, almost all of whom are first generation college students.

How can this model reach more aspiring college students?

It takes a modest amount of additional funding to implement this program as a part of an existing GED or adult diploma program. Backpacks to Briefcases employs part-time coordinators for about eight to ten hours a week for about 15 students. These coordinators help students find the right track to pursue in college, address individual barriers, and gain the confidence and skills they need to succeed in college and beyond. At Davidson County Community College, this amounts to an average annual budget of $22,000, most of which pays for part time coordinators.

Backpacks to Briefcases uses contextualized curriculum developed for five certification programs as part of Breaking Through and is willing to share them upon request. Similar curricula for new career tracks can be developed with dedicated staff time and expertise.

The program also has strong support from within the college and in the greater community. The program has cultivated a strong relationship with the college president through continuous visits to program and sharing success stories. Backpacks to Briefcases also sponsors visits by local Workforce Investment Board members to inspire understanding and support.

“It has opened some doors that they may not have been able to open themselves.” -Backpacks to Briefcases program director

With guidance through this critical transition, students are encouraged to look inward to find what they are passionate about and empowered to find the resources they need to pursue it. Learn about other promising practices and NCTN resources at

No Matter What Obstacle Is Thrown My Way… Celebrating Single Mothers in College

Single mothers represent 11% of undergraduate students in the U.S. They bring a unique set of strengths as college students and are assets to their schools and communities, despite the challenges they face juggling multiple family, work, and educational obligations. Single mother students have a great deal to offer colleges that invest in them, and this investment is especially worthwhile at a time when enrollments are declining and colleges and states strive to meet ambitious college completion goals. In celebration of Mother’s Day, World Education’s National College Transition Network (NCTN) brings you the voices of single mother college students and staff from community college programs that help them persist.

“Determined,” “resilient,” “persistent,” ”resourceful,” and “motivated” are the words used most often to describe single mother students. Maggie, a student at Manchester Community College’s Project STRIDE, said, “No matter what obstacle is thrown my way, I’m always able to somehow find a way over that and …get through it all.” Tria, a student in the KEYS program at Community College of Philadelphia, expressed her determination in this way: “Once I made my mind up that this is going to happen, I am going to do this… I’m going to get it done… I tried not to think about things that caused me to worry about whether I could. Because I knew I had the drive.”Daycare

Single mothers are determined to create a better life for their children. They want to be role models for their children and convey the value of education and the opportunities it can open. Lori Wayson, Coordinator of New Directions at Holyoke Community College, describes that determination this way:

What I hear over and over and over again from single moms, is that they’re here because they want to be a role model for their children, and… that gets them through so much. If they have struggles or they’re having a hard time with a class or things aren’t working out today for whatever reason, they continue to go….They are so strong and so dedicated, and they want to make a better life for their kids.

Many single mother students experience guilt because they are unable to spend more time with their children and be as attentive or present as they wish to be, juggling school, work, and family. They remind themselves that persevering in their educational goals will benefit their children in the long term.

Admiration for single mothers’ determination, motivation, and resourcefulness does not preclude recognition of the enormous challenges they face and the need for comprehensive personal and financial support systems. Single mothers are very often living in poverty, and this is the basis for the most severe challenges they encounter, including food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness, lack of affordable high-quality childcare, and lack of reliable transportation. One setback leads to another in a spiral of costs. As Steve Christopher, Assistant Vice President of Student Accessibility & Social Support Resources at Austin Community College, describes,

The most disruptive of the challenges, I think are their having to handle the unexpected…could be anything from house apartment repairs, you know, the air conditioning went out and I have to be here to let them in…sick child, that’s a big one. And we’re seeing more and more car repairs…Now we say our students are one flat tire away from dropping out…They get a flat tire and can’t afford to get a new one, so I can’t get to work… I just got fired, now I can’t get to school…and everything just unravels very quickly.

Being a low-income single mother often means dealing with bureaucracies that may be complicated and even demeaning, given the many constraints and compliance requirements. For example, those who are receiving public assistance are expected to go to school and to work, while fulfilling expectations for appointments with agency caseworkers and taking their children to appointments and activities. All of these requirements create competing demands for their time and attention, already stretched to the maximum. Kimberly Daniel of the Community College of Philadelphia affirmed: “The courage, the perseverance, the persistence, and the pride people still try to maintain in a life that in a way it beats you down every day.”

food counter

Single mother students display a seriousness of purpose that is not common in younger students and many serve as role models for traditional-aged students. As Mary Ann Haytmanek of Northampton Community College put it, “I’ve had faculty members say that to me, ‘I love when I have one of your students in my class, because the younger students are going to see her asking questions and realize it’s okay.’”

Many of the programs profiled include activities, such as workshops and discussion groups, designed specifically for single mothers and student parents to support each other. Tiffany Bailey, a student in Portland Community College’s Project Independence, described how she has grown as a result of participating in a supportive community of peers:

I’m striving just through this term to be a better person and to be an example for the other women. This one woman who went through a major loss with her husband after 17 years the other day said, “You know sometimes I hear your voice and I think, what would Tiffany do?” That means everything in the world to me – getting that validation from other women… I want that connection.

The Single Mothers’ Career Readiness and Success Project is an 18-month project funded by ECMC Foundation. The goal of the project is to identify and document community college services and strategies that support student parents (especially single mothers) for educators, policymakers, funders, and investors.

A report, profiling 18 community college programs that provide specialized, targeted support services for single mothers specifically, or student parents, in general, will be available in July 2019. For more information, contact Sandy Goodman, NCTN Director,

Single Mothers’ Career Readiness and Success

This blog is based on a literature review written by Dr. Mina Reddy, Independent Consultant. Sandy Goodman and Ellen Hewett of the National College Transition Network contributed to its development

Education and training have the potential for life-changing benefits for single mothers and their children. Single mothers are a growing segment of the postsecondary student population in the United States that has drawn the increased attention of academic and public policy researchers.

Single mother students consistently credit their children as the primary motivation and inspiration for going back to school. They act out of a strong sense of obligation to provide for their children financially and to secure a better life for them. Equally motivating is their passion to be a role model for their children, to show them the value of education, and to teach them not to give up on their goals.

A mother’s education has significant short-term and long-term positive effects on her children. For example, a mother’s college-going is associated with greater community involvement and social capital, a term used to describe the benefits gleaned from social networks and informal channels for communicating important information. As well, children of undergraduate student mothers show increased motivation in school and higher educational aspirations.

In addition to the potential economic benefit of postsecondary education, the social interactions and networking single mothers find in school provides them with job search assistance, access to other services, and emotional support. 

Mother and son doing homework

Experiencing challenges similar in many ways to other nontraditional college students, single mothers face additional stressors and challenges to completing educational programs. Their educational progress is frequently disrupted, whether because of pregnancy, caregiving, or gendered messages designed to undermine aspirations for education or career. Gender-based violence, control, and domination by male partners may negatively affect enrollment and persistence. Similarly, negative messages from family members and others may lead to self-doubt. As sole parents, they experience role conflict and role strain and the pressure to be both an “ideal student” and an “ideal parent”, practically an impossible standard. Although they feel they are making worthwhile sacrifices for the future, many student parents report distress at missing time with their children.

Single mothers also experience more financial difficulties than other students because of their generally lower wages and added family responsibilities and have financial needs beyond what is provided by Pell grants. Clearly, securing reliable and affordable childcare that accommodates the schedule demands of classroom, employment, and study time is a major challenge. Lack of stable housing and reliable transportation can also disrupt single mothers’ educational pathways.  

Despite these pressures, some mothers are successful in their pursuit of postsecondary education, but there is limited information about the effective educational program models and practices that support their success. With an 18-month planning grant from ECMC Foundation, World Education’s National College Transition Network (NCTN) is beginning to remedy this through an investigation of program strategies and models that address the needs of single mothers enrolled in career pathway bridge programs and postsecondary career and technical education.

If you know of a postsecondary career pathway or career and technical education program that includes services designed to support single mothers, contact Sandy Goodman, the project director at

To learn more about the Single Mothers’ Career Readiness and Success Project and to read the project literature review and research sources upon which this article is based, visit the project page on the NCTN website.

Support Adult Learners: Fight Income Inequality

AEFL Week LogoWidespread and growing economic inequality is now a broadly acknowledged fact of life in the U.S.  Adult education has a role to play in opening opportunities for low-income people to gain the education and training needed to access employment opportunities that pay a living wage.

  • Nearly 30% of adults with household incomes at or below the poverty line do not have high school credentials.
  • Individuals with high school credentials earn about $10,000 more annually than those without.

Yet, education alone can’t address income inequality. And while national labor market data indicates the growing number of U.S. jobs that will require some postsecondary education, another high growth sector remains low-paying, low-quality service sector jobs. For example, the restaurant industry includes 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs in the country. Therefore, higher education isn’t a sufficient antidote to income inequality.

Efforts at closing the growing income gap must include improving the quality of jobs offered in the growing service-sector economy.  Improving job quality would enable lower-skilled workers to earn family sustaining wages while undertaking longer-term efforts to improve their skills to access greater career opportunities.  In addition to wages and benefits, schedule stability is critical to the ability of low-wage workers to participate in education and training to upgrade their skills and advance in a career pathway.

In recognition of Adult Education and Family Literacy Week we urge you to take action to support literacy and living-wages for all.  Here’s how:

Teach about These Issues in Your Program!

  • Support students to learn about these issues and take action on them, whether it be voting on the ballot question or joining with already existing organizations in your community that are working on these issues.

Support Adult Education!

  • Call on your elected representatives to support adult education.
  • Support your local adult education program.

Support Living Wages!

State Ballot Questions
Alabama There is no ballot question this year, but there is a pending dispute between the Birmingham City Council, which voted in 2015 to raise the wage floor, incrementally, to $10.10. In response, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill voiding the local ordinance.

Raise Up Alabama

AZ The AZ Minimum Wage and Paid Time Off Initiative would raise the minimum wage to $10 in 2017 and then incrementally to $12 by 2020. It would also guarantee 40 hours of annual paid sick time to employees of large firms and 24 hours to those of small firms

Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA)

CO Colorado $12 Minimum Wage Amendment would raise the minimum wage from $8.31 to $9.30 per hour and increase 90 cents each year on January 1 until the wage reaches $12 in 2020.

Colorado Families for a Fair Wage


ME Maine Minimum Wage Increase Initiative, Question 4 increases the state’s minimum wage to $9 in 2017, $10 in 2018, $11 in 2019, and $12 in 2020.

Mainers for Fair Wages


MD Fight for 15 is a local campaign in Baltimore with a proposal before the City Council to raise the city’s minimum wage.

Fight for 15 Baltimore

MN 15 Now Minneapolis, is a campaign to raise the minimum wage in the city to $15.00/hour.

Minneapolis  15 Now

NJ In June, the New Jersey Senate approved legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage from $8.38 to $10.10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2017. If vetoed by Governor Christie, there will likely be a ballot initiative in 2017.

15 Now NJ

SC South Carolina Minimum Wage Increase Question may appear as an advisory question, which, if passed, would advise the state legislature to increase the state’s hourly minimum wage to one dollar above the federal minimum wage.

Fight for 15


SD South Dakota Decreased Youth Minimum Wage Referendum, Referred Law 20:“yes” vote supports Senate Bill 177 (SB 177), a law decreasing the minimum wage for workers under age 18 from $8.50 to $7.50


WA Washington Minimum Wage Initiative (ITP), if passed would incrementally raise the state’s minimum wage from $9.47 to $13.50 by 2020 and mandate employers to offer paid sick leave.

Raise Up Washington

For more information about these and other ballot initiatives:

You Can Get There From Here: College and Career Navigators

Concerns about the costs of college, financial burdens and the value of postsecondary education surround the discourse about President Obama’s college completion agenda. Additionally, many students, especially adult learners, first generation college goers and other nontraditional college students, arrive at college without adequate academic and personal preparation and, consequently, low persistence rates. The ambitious college completion agenda, coupled with the high consequences and costs of college attrition, have given rise to an awareness of the need for strategies that support students along a postsecondary pathway.

Navigators recruit students, help them negotiate the college processes, serve as student advocates, and assist them in securing support services.Colorado Success Unlimited

In Toward a New Understanding of Non-Academic Student Support: Four Mechanisms Encouraging Positive Students Outcomes in the Community College (2011), Melinda Mechur Karp of the Community College Research Center reviews student persistence and program evaluation literature and identifies four mechanisms or processes that support academically vulnerable college students, including adult learners. Karp labels these four mechanisms as:

  1. Creating social relationships that provide students with a sense of belonging and identity. Early contact and familiarity with faculty, staff, and student peers has proven to increase engagement and persistence.
  2. Developing college know-how, or college-knowledge, is especially important to first generation college students who have not learned the language and culture of college from family members who have gone before them. This cultural know-how also contributes to a sense of belonging and engagement. Further, lack of familiarity with terminology, policies, and procedures, such as add-drop deadlines, can have serious consequences.
  3. Clarifying aspirations and enhancing commitments ensures that students know why they are in college and have a sense of how it contributes to their longer term goals. Without this clarity, commitment to the challenges of college becomes tenuous and insufficient to overcome the setbacks and challenges of adjusting to college.
  4. Making college life feasible by ensuring that students are aware of and know how to access any funding and services that can assist with their basic daily needs, such as food, housing, transportation, and childcare, as well as additional academic supports such as tutoring.

A Navigator is an education and career specialist who assists, coaches, and empowers students to develop and pursue post-secondary, career pathway goals and employment. Skill-up Washington

A support strategy has emerged that has the potential to reinforce each of these mechanisms to prepare adults for college and career pathways and improve persistence, credential attainment and college completion. It is the role of a College and Career Navigator (Navigator), who serves as a single point of contact to help students translate the complex and unfamiliar terrain of college and ensure that students are aware of and know how to access a comprehensive set of campus and community support services. This role has been established in numerous national and local career pathway initiatives. For example:

  • A key intervention of the Massachusetts Community College and Workforce Development Transformation Agenda is a to place a Navigator at each One Stop Career Center (now called American Job Centers) to recruit and assist career center clients who seek postsecondary education and training. In addition to helping clients apply for college and funding, develop a career plan and select a program of study, the Navigators serve as an important bridge between staff at the Job Center and the college, which promotes greater coordination and reduces duplication of service.
  • Accelerating Opportunity is a national integrated career pathways initiative that names the coordination of comprehensive student support services as a core program design element. Participating colleges are encouraged to appoint a Navigator as a central point of contact who serves as a bridge to campus and community services. While some colleges hire navigators directly, others contract with community based organizations to provide this role, in order to leverage available human services expertise.
  • SkillWorks Partners for a Productive Workforce funds a Navigator who is employed by the Boston Private Industry Council, but based at Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC). The Navigator partners with community based organizations and college faculty and staff, such as admissions, financial aid, and advising to ensure a smooth transition to BHCC for participants from Skillworks-funded community based training programs.

The exact job title, core responsibilities, institutional setting and location, timing and duration of the Navigator intervention, and caseload vary and draw from multiple disciplines such as, career counseling, case management, life coaching, academic advising, social work, and advocacy. At the core are some common elements of the Navigator role: help students clarify, commit, and stay on track with educational goals; coordinate, versus duplicate, a broad array of campus and community supports; use a proactive (aka “intrusive”) and personalized approach; appreciate the strengths and resiliency of adult learners; recognize and help to address the challenges adults encounter juggling multiple responsibilities of work, school, and family, with few available resources; bring institutional barriers encountered by students to the attention of college administrators.

World Education’s US Division has been providing online and face-to-face training for College and Career Navigators around the country since 2012. Our free, self-paced course Finding True North: The Role of the Navigator is available to the public and is a good orientation for new navigators or education and workforce program administrators considering creating a position. It is the pre-requisite for a 5-week facilitated course for navigators, Navigating Pathways to Opportunity and registration for the fall 2014 session is open now.

The National College Transition Network, a project of World Education, offers numerous resources for Navigators to use with students, such as Integrating Career Awareness, Mapping Your Financial Journey, and College for Adults.

A compass is a device used to help someone find their way… South represents what’s behind us…our past. Some of us started this program looking back, focusing on our mistakes, lamenting about the regrets we have for our choices and non-choices. While the demands of East and West, family, friends, and work, are important, they do take away from our ability to be the best, most focused learners we can be. And lastly, there is True North, [the Navigator]. She employed a gentle guidance and wisdom to remove self- judgment and fear… She supported while at the same time encouraged self-reliance.

– Excerpt from a graduation speech given by Vicky Kent, graduate of Transition to College and Careers program at Marshwood Adult Education.