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Women Employed: Building Career Pathways for Adults Without Diplomas

Let’s face it: thousands of Americans are working in low-paid jobs with no path for advancement—not because they want to, but because their options are limited without the basic credentials necessary to move up the career ladder.

A mounting body of research shows that people with post-high school education earn more than those without. But how do you begin thinking about advanced education if you don’t even have your high school diploma?

And how do you get out of low-paid work without marketable credentials?

Education policymakers and advocates are pursuing ground-breaking strategies to help thousands of non-traditional students—those not going to college directly after high school—find a path to continue their education.

These innovations include career pathways being championed in states like Illinois, where post-secondary institutions, state agencies, and advocacy organizations such as Women Employed have developed programs that introduce adult learners to in-demand careers like healthcare and information technology, while also helping them master the fundamental academic skills they need to earn their GED and enter the college system.

Many adults who think about returning to school are afraid they won’t be able to keep up with the math and reading requirements of college, but the most effective career pathway programs pair job exploration with remedial skills training. That’s how Madelin DeJesus, now pursuing a career in social work, got her GED as an adult student.

“It was overwhelming. I’m 42 years old and I hadn’t been in school for a while,” she told Women Employed. “But because of the instructors, my reading level went up six points.”

Effective career pathways also include multiple entry and exit points that help students stack up post-secondary credentials along the way, giving them the ability to pause and get a job in their chosen career if they need to. With the credentials Lorraine Colorado earned in a healthcare pathway program, she was able to leave her housekeeping job and secure a nursing assistant position. She is now continuing her education with the goal of working in radiology.

“You don’t just go into college, they help you figure out the way to get to your goals,” said Lorraine. “Without this program, I wouldn’t have been able to do all the certifications and get back on track for school."

The opportunity to earn income while building skills is especially important to working students, who are often also parents and breadwinners in their homes. It’s also key that non-traditional students are able to access these opportunities in the first place, and Women Employed works closely with City Colleges of Chicago and community-based organizations that can bring career pathway programs directly to people who need them the most.

In Chicago, Women Employed partners with community colleges, cultural centers, and human services agencies to engage students who may feel stuck in their jobs, and are interested in attaining the skills they need to transition into better careers. Whether a student is starting late in life or catching up after taking a break from school, a career pathway program can open up the door to a college education and the benefits it brings.

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